During the past fiscal year, ULI’s membership grew by 9.5 percent, capping the third-straight year of strong growth for the organization. This pattern is a promising sign for ULI, which has spent the past several years rebuilding its membership after the global recession of 2008–2009. On June 30, which concluded the 2016 fiscal year, the Institute’s membership was 38,994, coming close to pre-recession levels.
The economic recovery offers a partial explanation for the growth, but it can also be attributed to concrete steps ULI’s leadership has taken to more robustly recruit and engage members and to clearly define the value of joining ULI. Nearly all district councils and select national councils have membership chairs and committees whose role it is to recruit new members. Several councils hold marquee events that give members special discounts to attend, as well as offer more intimate and exclusive member-only gatherings. Expansion of member-only content through webinars that allow access anywhere, anytime, has also proved successful.
“Having a good membership strategy is important, and having our membership support that strategy is equally important,” says Carolyn Brennan, senior director of membership and marketing.
Several district and national councils launched a major convening in fiscal year 2016 with the hope that it will become an annual event. ULI Toronto held its inaugural Emerging Trends and City Building Symposium in November, and ULI Belgium held a conference focused on competitive cities in May. Both councils saw membership growth as a result.
Another way ULI has propelled growth is development of affinity groups for every stage in a member’s career. The Young Leaders Group (YLG) program continues to be a powerful force helping emerging professionals find smaller networks of peers within ULI’s big tent. It also offers people under 35 leadership opportunities that they might not otherwise find in their professional lives.
Anthony Chang, who served as YLG chairman with ULI New York before relocating to Washington, D.C., was among those who designed the YLG Leadership Exchange program in the mid-2000s. That program facilitates exchanges between Young Leaders in different real estate markets, giving them opportunities to learn from senior leaders, lead study tours, and develop programming. Chang relished the opportunity to oversee membership growth for those under 35 in one of ULI’s largest district councils. “It was a safe place to learn, grow, and make mistakes,” says Chang, a former ULI trustee and vice president of asset management at Washington REIT. Chang currently serves on the ULI Washington Advisory Board.
At the 2015 ULI Asia Pacific Summit in Tokyo, YLG members from Australia and Japan arranged their own exchange and study tour of Tokyo. YLG in Australia had a particularly busy year in fiscal year 2016 with a lunchtime “power hour” speaker series and the launch by the ULI Sydney chapter of its first-ever Urban Innovation competition.
ULI NEXT, at both the global and local level, is a relatively new effort to retain members by focusing on professionals between ages 35 and 45 and their specific needs—the deepening responsibilities both at work and at home, and the limited time available to spend on activities outside those two spheres. ULI NEXT leaders say they are creating a pipeline for the next generation of senior leaders within their companies and ULI.
“We think of ULI NEXT Global as an aspirational group that members who have engaged locally with ULI and taken on leadership responsibilities can look toward as a future goal,” ULI NEXT global cochair Lynn Carlton said earlier this year. “Since our time is really stretched in so many ways, we wanted to make sure that those who had already given were being rewarded through their inclusion and participation in ULI NEXT Global.”
ULI has also clarified the case for membership by offering more opportunities to contribute skills and expertise and reasons to feel invested. Irina Jochen, a former Young Leader with ULI Germany who recently relocated to New York City, is working closely with U.S.-based district councils on programming ideas she can take back to Europe. “You become sort of a CEO of your project, and ULI gives you everything you need in terms of support,” she says. “You gain management skills, entrepreneurial skills; you develop something from scratch, and it motivates you to do even more.”
Besides, “you move countries, you move continents, and you are still part of the ULI community,” Jochen adds.
For Europe and the Asia Pacific region, the focus has been on strengthening the national council network and developing content around themes—like density, city competitiveness, and technology—that are top of mind to members in these markets, says Lisette van Doorn, chief executive officer of ULI Europe.
“Working closely with the national councils makes our work far more relevant,” she says. “ULI is about the built environment, and that means local, by definition. By adding a focus on the national councils we are uniquely placed to share knowledge and expertise globally and apply this locally.”
Chang, who was membership chair on the now phased-out ULI operating committee, says work done by a membership task force to simplify membership categories and streamline the join/renew process also laid the groundwork for recent membership growth. “Every time you take the friction out of member engagement, you unleash the potential for ULI members to help cities solve some of their most complex and vexing land use challenges,” he says.