Since 2002, Sarah Sladek has researched membership and workforce engagement trends, social change, and shifts in demographics, economics, and consumerism to clearly identify how to establish cultures of belonging in an era of change. She is the founder and CEO of Membership University, the first research and training company devoted entirely to membership strategy and community-building. Additionally, she is the founder and CEO of XYZ University, a generational research and inclusive culture-building firm. Sarah is also the author of five books, and she hosts the Membership IQ podcast and the Save the Associations web show. Backed by years of experience and supported by solid research, she remains committed to helping organizations plan for their futures and prosper in the new economy. 

Sarah Sladek
CEO, Membership University

What inspired you to work in the international association sector? Would you recommend this career to others? 

I was raised to value volunteering and membership. My family was actively involved in membership organizations and community-building efforts. So when I went to work for an association early in my career and the association was lamenting the fact that younger generations weren’t joining, I was intrigued. I began doing research and learned that this trend was being observed by membership organizations of all types and sizes. Initially chalked up as a character flaw (« young people today just aren’t joiners »), I knew there had to be more to the story. Since then, I’ve dedicated my career to understanding what caused ‘belonging’ to shift, why the majority of associations globally have continued to experience membership decline, and what membership organizations need to do to succeed in creating communities of relevance and belonging in today’s market. Associations fill a vital and unique role in our society, but I fear they have lost sight of their mission to be member-centric. It’s my goal to bring belonging and membership community-building back.

Working for an association provides access to a wealth of skill-building and give-back opportunities. No two days are the same, and the work is meaningful and varied. There are ample opportunities to connect to and serve a community of people or benefit an entire industry. I would highly recommend a career working with membership associations. 

How do you/ your association #EmbraceEquity? Does giving a voice and a space to diverse groups make for better results?  

Did you know that age discrimination is the last accepted form of discrimination in our society? Many organizations turn a blind eye to the concept of age diversity and fail to prioritize or sustain inclusive cultures. Our research has proven that associations boasting age-diverse memberships also report higher levels of member engagement and revenues. Equity matters.

Our organization was founded as the antidote, teaching organizational leaders and teams how to engage younger generations, the importance of shifting the focus to collaboration instead of hierarchy, and intentionally appointing decision-makers who are representative of different ages, backgrounds, and skill sets. I started XYZ University LLC (which stands for Generations X, Y, and Z) in 2002 to bring awareness to the generation gaps influencing employee disengagement and contributing to toxic team environments.

How important are diversity, equity, and inclusion for the future success of associations?  

I believe diversity, equity, and inclusion are important attributes, but not as important as belonging. Only through belonging can associations improve their performance. Inclusion is the process of making room for everyone, but belonging is the result of giving them the opportunity to make a difference and use their voice. Belonging is the real measure of success.