Out of Line: Why Chapters Go Rogue

Think one (or more) of your organization’s chapters ıs veering away? You might be right. Learn how to spot the warning signs and what to do when chapters go rogue.

Four years ago, Trevor Mitchell, CAE, noticed that something was amiss with one of the Association of Records Managers and Administrators (ARMA) International’s 120 chapters. As the current executive director of membership and technology, Mitchell found that this chapter’s communication was dwindling, and when he reached out to its board members, they were unresponsive. Finally, he learned that the board was meeting monthly, not inviting any other members, and using chapter coffers to pay for lunch.

“We knew they were using funds in inappropriate ways,” Mitchell says. “I think it was a combination of bad leadership and the feeling that they were above the rest of the association. They created their own good ol’ boys network, and they didn’t want our help.”

In this case, the ARMA International board stepped in and revoked the chapter’s charter. A few bad eggs on the chapter’s board left, the membership merged with that of a nearby chapter, and things have completely turned around since.

“We carefully monitored it, and now it’s successful,” says Mitchell, who has been on the job eight years and says the association has fewer problem chapters today.

Association chapters can go rogue for all sorts of reasons, from leadership on a power trip to misunderstandings about a logo. But even though the causes can differ, there are warning signs that a chapter is veering off course. And once a chapter has gone rogue, understanding best practices in handling it can make the difference between nipping a problem in the bud and watching it explode into a worst- case-scenario situation.

If a chapter struggles and there are too many negative feelings, sometimes it’s better to start fresh.

Warning Signs

A rogue chapter, Mitchell notes, “is one that’s not really connected with the organization or even other chapters, so it operates without care for what it’s doing or how it ties into the larger organization.”

Peggy Hoffman, CAE, president of Mariner Management and Marketing LLC, agrees, noting that leaders of a rogue chapter tend to feel more connected to themselves and their decisions than the organization as a whole.

Why do chapters go rogue? Cynthia D’Amour, leadership strategist for People Power Unlimited, likens it to a person acting out because he or she doesn’t feel heard. “When they go rogue, they’re really communicating a message,” she says. “Sometimes it’s the martyr leader who has taken over and that’s how he does business—by being a pain.”

Hoffman says the volunteer culture at the chapter level is often at the root of the problem. “On the whole, volunteer leaders are good-hearted and passionate, but some of them get into power and this gives them a sense of importance that they don’t have in other areas of their life,” she says. “And that’s where we see financial problems or people making silly decisions—thinking that they have a greater sense of what the members need.”

Warnings that a chapter has decided to march to the beat of a different drummer are usually obvious. Its leaders might stop responding to requests, participating in leadership events, or taking advantage of association support. “The communication channel starts to break down,” says Mitchell, who is careful to monitor the change in chapter leadership every year. “When you add various things together—not participating, not responding—something’s going on.”

Megan Backes, director of volunteer leadership for the American Marketing Association, says she monitors the health of AMA’s 75 chapters by looking at meeting minutes, financial information, and participation in training events or virtual meetings. Stagnant or dropping membership numbers can also indicate problems at the chapter level. Backes expects to see ebbs and flows within chapters and understands they may struggle in a couple areas. “But if it’s more than a couple,” she says, “we take it seriously.”

D’Amour keeps an eye out for behavioral changes—for instance, if an always-punctual chapter becomes tardy with its applications and forms. And if you are listening carefully, she says, you’re bound to hear the scuttlebutt.

“You’ll hear rumors and complaints,” she says. “Social media puts a new spin on this. I’ve come across a blog post where the chapter goes to a conference and posts on a regional website about how national is trying to do this or that.” But if the chapter has a healthy relationship with the association, chances are it will think twice before airing its dirty laundry in public.

If you’re tuned in to your chapter, you’ll likely be able to address an issue before the organization goes full-blown rogue. One of Mitchell’s chapters hadn’t realized all the resources the association offered, and Mitchell found he was only hearing from them when there was a problem. He took that opportunity to explain that ARMA International was not trying to control the chapter but wanted to support it. Over the last 18 months, he says, the chapter has made positive progress.

In another example, Hoffman was working with a chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and learned from the national organization that the chapter’s website wasn’t in compliance. She told PRSA that there was no money in the budget to change the site, but the chapter had plans to launch a new website in the future. PRSA replied that the new website needed to follow the branding rules when it was launched.

“So we were a rogue chapter because we weren’t following rules at the time,” Hoffman says, “but because we had a conversation, it didn’t spin out of control.”

Response Strategies

A national organization considering how to respond to a rogue chapter needs to examine the severity of the transgression. Some forms of rebellion can be an immediate threat, some are simply annoying, and some fall in between.

But no matter the level, it’s best to address the problem immediately, before campaigns and battles begin. “With a rogue chapter, time makes the situation worse,” Hoffman says. “If you saw something that looked odd, I think making a phone call is the first thing to do.”

She cites what she says is a common example: A chapter organizes a program, and the national organization deems the speaker inappropriate. First, look at how bad the situation is and decide whether it makes sense to pull the speaker or simply talk to the chapter about it not happening again. Either way, Hoffman says it’s important to pick up the phone to get answers and troubleshoot. Ask the chapter when, why, and how they chose the speaker.

“And rather than telling the chapter what not to do or reprimanding them (‘Why did you do this?’),” Hoffman says, “make sure to offer steps that are practical, such as, ‘Here’s a list of approved speakers.’ ”

Backes often reaches out to rogue chapters by email first, saying, “Hey, we see you’re having a problem here.” She lets them know about online resources, offers assistance in brainstorming, and suggests the support of AMA’s Professional Chapters Council. This 10- to 12-person group includes past presidents of award-winning chapters and plays a key role in mentoring and turning around rogue organizations.

“Some chapters take us up on that. If we don’t hear back from the chapter, it’s a bigger issue, and then we start proactively calling core members of the board,” Backes says.

When the issue is critical and trust has been breached, there is nothing like a face-to-face conversation. “But make sure the person you send is a skilled communicator and can do some training or sit in on the board meeting,” D’Amour says. What doesn’t work is “going parental” with chapter leaders and treating them like bad children (“Stop using our logo the wrong way!”), which she says can fuel resentment.

In some extreme cases, it’s necessary to expel a chapter. If a chapter can’t find its way within a year, it should be put on probation and then deactivated if necessary after a certain number of probationary months with no signs of a turnaround, Hoffman advises.

Backes agrees. “If a chapter struggles and there are too many negative feelings, sometimes it’s better to start fresh.” AMA has had chapters close and then reopen years later with different leaders. But, like starting a chapter from scratch, rebuilding requires one key, dedicated person. “You really need somebody motivated at the chapter level,” Backes says. “We can offer programming tips and help a chapter recruit new board members, but it’s unsustainable to manage something nationally. You need people on the ground taking ownership.”

If you’re trying to turn a chapter around, make sure you have a plan for doing so, and remember that repairing a chapter-association bond doesn’t happen overnight. At the end of the day, you’re turning a ruptured relationship into a healthy one. Sometimes you’re trying to change behavior, other times you’re just bringing the chapter back into the fold. But the key—to resolve problematic issues or prevent them from happening in the first place—is having the relationship, Mitchell says.

“Listen and repeat back to them, ‘This is what I’m hearing you say. Is this correct?’” he says. “And from there, it’s talking about what’s important. It has to be genuine and not defensive or accusatory. If you don’t focus on a relationship, you’re going to run into problems.”

(Jorg Greuel/Getty Images)

Melanie D.G. Kaplan

By Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Melanie D.G. Kaplan writes regularly for the Washington Post and is a contributing editor at Smart Planet/CBS Interactive. MORE

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