Four years ago in Long Beach, AAPG President Paul Weimer dedicated much of his conference address to AAPG’s demographics. He raised the specter of an aging society and urged everyone to help recruit new, young members. Since that call to arms we have come to sponsor 9,000 to 10,000 students annually and support 350 Student Chapters with a vibrant Visiting Geoscientist Program, the ever-popular Imperial Barrel Award competition, Grants in Aid, Student Expos, the Publications Pipeline and more.
Up to $1.5 million per year goes into a range of student initiatives, not to mention the many hours of dedicated volunteer work from so many of our members. Initiatives, in fact, that run back more than a dozen years and have secured as much as $5 million in sponsorships since Weimer’s presidential address.
So what impact have these student programs had in turning around that “age challenged” demographic?
The news is not so good.
Worldwide, we have roughly 300 paid-up “Members” (with voting rights) aged 30 years or younger, and barely 1,000 Members between 31-40 years of age, shared between the Sections and Regions.
Here is the major concern: our organization has a total membership of 38,500, but fewer than 2,500 are under 51 years of age and able to participate fully (as what we used to call “Active” members, now simply “Members”, with a capital “M”). We currently have about 14,000 Members. Thus, only 18 percent of Members are under 51. And that’s only 6 percent of all member classes combined!
The bulk of our members are either over 50, or sponsored Students who might never make the transition to Young Professional.
And this is not a recent phenomenon we can blame on the oil price. We have seen no net growth since President Weimer raised that red flag four years ago when the industry environment was far more attractive.
Change is Coming, But Not Fast Enough
By-law and governance changes are being worked on by some of our most distinguished members, but it will be some time before they have a trickle-down effect on membership growth. Nor, indeed, was membership growth even the main goal for some of these changes, so I won’t comment on them further.
However, I have observed what I consider to be some “best practices” in the Sections, Regions and in some other professional societies that are having a more immediate impact in capturing the interest and energy of YPs. They offer the promise of better transition rates from Students to full Members in these most troubling of times.
So let me share them with you:
- Closing the deal! I am convinced our student initiatives are as good as those in any professional society. But we are not “closing that deal.” Our students join for free, get sponsored support from all sides for two to three years, but as the very best of them graduate and find jobs, we are failing to welcome many of them on board as worthy fellow professionals. There is a Student to YP “transition bridge,” but we still have relatively few “pathfinders” in some parts of our overseas organization to show those young working graduates how to use that bridge. The new YP SIG, co-chaired so ably by Jonathan Allen and Meredith Faber, is proving a wonderful vehicle to make AAPG exciting for YPs and provide that essential Student pull-through.
- Providing focus: Tracking who is graduating in those 350 Student Chapters around the world, being able to contact them one-on-one and then recruiting them to be YPs (i.e., closing the deal!) needs to be a focal point for the Sections and in each Region, plus a cadre of volunteers. YPs are ideal candidates to interface with their alma mater and other universities, but they cannot do it all alone. AAPG headquarters staff are therefore working on a position within their new organization structure to support these efforts, and this will be critical. Latin America and the Caribbean already have 25 percent of their 50 and under Members involved in volunteer work and YPs are focused on Students. This is huge, and shows great stakeholder involvement. We encourage more of this kind of focus and emphasis both from volunteers and staff.
- Associate to full Member transition: We have good evidence that there are many Associates who are more than qualified for full Membership but do not realize they are not actually full Association Members, nor how easy it is for most of them to become one. We have comparable numbers of Associate members to the full Members in many areas (sadly, many seem to be “lost” crossing that Student to YP transition bridge). This is a huge opportunity to add to our core membership. David Dolph, while he was House of Delegates chair last year, launched a massive initiative that is proving successful in holding up our overall Member numbers. Again, that one-on-one outreach is very effective, and again we’ll be looking to headquarters for some leadership and support to target and set up contacts. And let’s reward our volunteer recruiters with credits to help buy AAPG publications.
- Corporate memberships: This is an interesting route, and need not become a contractual and legal nightmare. It currently costs about $3,000-5,000 for a company to send someone to a weeklong industry course in a city other than their workplace. With training and travel budgets being slashed, companies could put the onus on “self education.” Their employees would find a rich hoard of information and data online with AAPG, not least in the Bulletin archives. And for the same price as sending a single person to an industry short course, a company could have 25 young or more mature professionals in their ranks of geoscientists as AAPG Members. I’ll let our Section and Region Leaders reflect on lightweight, fast-track methods to reinvigorate this initiative, tailored to the needs of their local companies in their areas. Please reach out to David Curtiss for further help and ideas on this.
- Affiliate engagement: I am very concerned that the strong relationships we enjoyed with at least some of our regional affiliates at the turn of the millennium might have been strained, and I fear that we are drifting away from some of them. I’d recommend the Sections and Regions partner as much as possible with our affiliates to create “bespoke” events like GTWs and ICEs and to have our affiliates more involved in the process of nominating HoD representatives, AAPG candidates and awardees and so forth. Improved partnerships and more varied attendance of AAPG events could result in membership growth. In the past, when we had periods of sustained growth, maintaining close relations with our affiliates was an important part of that equation.
I’d like us to use the opportunity of the current headquarters reorganization to reflect the extent to which we should empower the staff to be more proactive with some initiatives (specifically membership) than has historically been the case. But, as noted above, I shall steer clear of the governance debate and David Curtiss’s new headquarters organization in this article. But, let both of these initiatives include consideration of how to rebuild that essential pool of 50 and under’s, who will be our reservoir of volunteers and future leaders. It is as important a priority as balancing our Association’s budget.
In conclusion, I think AAPG has some world-class programs. But, I fear we have taken it too much for granted that people would simply feel compelled to join our organization. We sometimes forgot that work was needed from AAPG itself to close the deal to sign up potential new members. The huge number of Student members and the easy, low cost, transition they are offered to become Associates and then YPs has lured everyone into believing growth was inevitable and would happen automatically. But it has not. We are in a membership crisis with only 6 percent of the ranks filled with paid up full Members under 51 years of age. We need to focus some of our staff’s resources to guide, assist and sometimes lead our oft-overworked volunteers to achieve Student transition, Associate transition, corporate memberships and affiliate society partnering and engagement.