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Lobby groups search for recruits

Seniors’ organisations have had some impressive wins since the 1990s but declining membership is a concern for some. Natasha Egan reports.

Private health insurance rebate, lifetime health cover, discounts on Great Southern Rail, tax, superannuation and health concessions, plus franked dividends are just some of the many bonuses that members of the Association of Independent Retirees (AIR) receive. Despite these many benefits, the organisation’s membership is declining and its future is in doubt.

John Wenban, the association’s national president, says the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card is probably the biggest achievement AIR has gained either alone or in conjunction with other seniors’ organisations. However, like the rest of the nation, AIR’s membership is ageing. “Unless we can bring in the younger ones, then inevitably we will die,” Wenban says.

When the organisation was formed in 1992, independent retiree meant independent of government support. But now it tends to mean independent of thought and lifestyle, Wenban says. “There aren’t too many people who these days would be totally independent of government support.”

Launched in Queensland with two branches, AIR grew to 80 branches nationally at its most popular and now has 69. Wenban says membership peaked at 17,000, but over the past seven or eight years it has fallen to the current level of just over 9000 fully or part self-funded retirees or near retirees. There are branches in every state. But none in the territories. The Canberra office closed recently.

The decline is the likely result of two factors, Wenban says. Back in 1990 the government ignored self-funded retirees but over the years it has recognised and provided considerable benefits to that part of the community, he says. “As the number of benefits increased, so the perception among the members was, we’ve got everything we’ve asked, so why do we continue to belong.”

The other reason is the average age of the membership has gone up, he says, from 65 to 69 over the past four years. Those who were 65 in 1990 are now in their 80s, becoming frailer and less inclined to go out, especially in the evening. “So branch meetings are held on a weekday during normal workdays,” Wenban says.

Here lays the problem in recruiting the next generation, the baby boomers, because most can’t go to a meeting during the day as they are still at work, he says. “And if they were able to, do they really want to sit in a room full of 75-years-olds? No. Their wants and needs are different to ours. We’ve grown up with self-sufficiency and frugality; they’re growing up with, eventually, super.”

Also experiencing a shrinking membership is National Seniors Australia, an organisation which represents people over 50 nationally. Chief executive Michael O’Neill, says current membership has been declining slightly over the past five years and is now sitting at about 225,000.

“We do have consistent new membership growth each month, which is quite encouraging, and that’s been lifting”. The bulk of National Seniors’ members are in the 50 to 65 age group, O’Neill says, and their challenges are around retaining members.

Bucking the trend, however, is the other national organisation representing Australians over 50, the Council on the Ageing federation (COTA). “Our individual membership is increasing but I would say that it’s tougher than it used to be a decade ago,” says Ian Yates, COTA national’s chief executive. “And the younger end are not as obvious joiners.”

COTA has about 45,000 individual members, mostly retired and in their 70s, and a high rate of retention, says Yates. He says COTA had to rebuild its membership following a merger attempt with National Seniors that fell apart in 2006, four years into the process.

National Seniors and COTA both report the majority of their members join for advocacy first and hip pocket benefits second. O’Neill says that regardless of initial reasons, advocacy is the primary reason people stay in National Seniors. Yates says their experience shows, whatever the original reason for joining, after about year three members valued all aspects.

In addition to membership fees, COTA and National Seniors attract funding from the government, AIR doesn’t. A declining membership directly affects the bulk of its revenue source. “If there’s insufficient income to balance the budget then basically you go belly up broke anyway,” Wenban says.

Regardless of government funding, which O’Neill says accounts for 7 per cent of National Seniors’ income, he agrees membership is the basis of the organisation and the goal is to grow it. “The nature of advocacy groups is that the more significant the membership the more significant your influence tends to be.” However, he says declining membership is not a problem unique to seniors’ groups.

That’s a view Michael Goldsworthy, principal consultant at Australian Strategic Services, supports. Goldsworthy specialises in developing sustainable growth strategies with boards and senior management of not-for-profit community businesses.

He says organisations that address past social causes are more likely to be experiencing membership decline than those addressing current social causes. An organisation needs to be relevant to its current and future membership, he says. “You’ve got to move and live with your current members but you’ve also got to think about your future members and adapt.”

Businesses that struggle to attract new members are often stuck in their old ways from the old days and marketing themselves in that same old way, he says. “If you haven’t got new members coming along, ultimately you need to put on your marketing hat and see there’s no relevant product or service sets there.”

If an organisation is unable to grow on its own, merging or amalgamating with likeminded organisations could help to ensure long-term viability, Goldsworthy says.

Amalgamating is not something COTA needs to do to stay viable, Yates says. “COTA as a federation and National Seniors as the unitary single body are the only two really strong national seniors’ groups.” AIR and others are important organisations, but they’re not in the same ball park, he says.

Yates says while another merger attempt between the two national bodies again anytime soon is unlikely, he does think a unified body has substantial merit in terms of advocacy. “What the experience showed us was that a single organisation could open any door. We could go and talk to anybody because we were the spokesbody on behalf of seniors.”

While COTA isn’t looking to amalgamate, Wenban says it’s something AIR is considering. The board is looking at ways to reinvent and options include amalgamating or affiliating with likeminded organisations. “Two groups of 10,000 give a political voice of 20,000 rather than 10,000. And that’s probably the way ahead for small organisations like ours,” he says. “Another option could be, for example, to work with National Seniors and become the self-funded retiree division.”

Despite concerns for its long-term viability, AIR is not sitting idly by. Wenban says it’s been one of their busiest years in advocacy for a long time.

AIR had a seat at the October tax forum, made submissions to the age discrimination commissioner, had regular meetings with the tax office, made a submission to the advisory panel for the economic potential of senior Australians and sent pre-budget submissions, he says.“That occurs at state as well as the federal level, so no, we’re not sitting twiddling our thumbs,” Wenban says.

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