Members Win When Chapters and Associations Get Along
One component relations professional explains how a focus on member value is crucial to healthy chapter/national relationships.
When politicians bicker and fail to legislate, who gets left behind? Citizens. Or, when parents argue and fight, who feels the negative effects? Kids. And when an association and its affiliated chapter organizations clash, who misses out on the best possible value? Yep, members.
Maintaining a positive relationship between an association and its chapters or components requires a lot of effort, day in and day out, and it’s a job that’s bound to run into speed bumps from time to time. A story from Inman News in April [paywall] brought this to light: After the National Association of Realtors instituted a set of “core standards” for its local associations in 2014, several small or rural associations decided their only choices were to dissolve or merge with another nearby local Realtor association. Inman estimated the mergers and dissolutions have affected about 49,000 Realtors in the U.S. (or about 5 percent of NAR’s approximately 1 million members). For its part, NAR allocated $20 million to help its small associations to meet the new standards, and it said in a statement, “We knew the process wouldn’t be without its challenges, but we believe there are many benefits to raising the bar for Realtor associations and ensuring high-quality service for members.”
Component relations professionals can likely relate. “I don’t think there’s anything I have ever done in my career to date where every single one of our chapter leaders has just been absolutely ecstatic that we’re doing this one change or making this one adjustment,” says Trevor Mitchell, CAE, who just started as director of membership and strategy at American Mensa after serving most recently as executive director of membership and technology at the Association of Records Managers and Administrators (ARMA) International.
In 2012, Mitchell was co-executive editor of the 2nd Edition of ASAE’s Component Relations Handbook and authored a chapter on successful partnerships between components and lead associations. He says a focus on member value is a key element in productive chapter relations, and the first step is identifying the appropriate roles that components and the lead association play in the membership experience.
“It’s really important for the national organization to identify what value components bring to the organization and how they can be used as a communication channel of member value and not just another function of the organization,” he says. At ARMA, Mitchell led a two-year effort to realign chapter and national roles, with components focusing on local education and local community. “We said here’s what you’re doing as a chapter within the organization and how you’re bringing value to the membership, and here’s the other things that we [national] are doing that you can’t do on your own.”
When done right, the chapter experience can be one of the biggest drivers of member retention. ARMA members named their chapter engagement as their top benefit on member-satisfaction surveys, Mitchell said. “If we’re investing in them, it increases our national retention rate and growth rate.”
Every association with components will at times need to make changes that affect those groups, and thereby their members, and balancing the need for component buy-in with the need for agility can be a challenge. Mitchell’s solution at ARMA was an informal, ad hoc advisory board made of volunteers from components ranging in size, location, and rural or urban settings. The group served as a sounding board for changes, allowing Mitchell to get an estimate of ARMA’s chapters’ views more quickly than through a formal structure.
Over time, Mitchell says he has found that issuing changes to components works best when those changes are based on the association’s overall strategy and mission and when it’s made clear how the components’ activities with members on the ground level fit into or complement that strategy. And that message should ideally come from the board of directors, not association staff. That means the association’s board and senior leaders need to see components as an opportunity to be leveraged, not a structure to be managed.
“The biggest thing that I talk about, at least where I believe component relations are going in the future, is that [components are] treated as partners within the relationship and that they’re seen as a strategic asset in achieving the goals of the organization. I think those are the two areas that especially senior leadership, CEOs, and boards who have not done that kind of work tend to overlook,” Mitchell says.
How do your association’s chapters or component groups fit into your membership strategy? What influence do they have on the membership experience? And when you’ve made changes, how have you tried to ensure components are both supportive and supported? Share your thoughts in the comments.