Ground Support: How to Help Local Chapters
Chapters provide the help associations need to reach members locally. But to keep things running smoothly, associations must also make sure components have the help they need to fulfill that purpose. Organizations of all sizes can find networking, technological, or financial solutions to make sure chapters can leverage the power of their association.
An association’s hope for its chapters is that they act as an extension of the organization, helping further its mission and meet its goals. And, for the most part, chapters pull through by increasing member engagement, recruiting and retaining members, providing leadership development, and handling marketing and communications efforts at the local level.
But associations must also deal with the reality that their volunteer chapter leaders are not experts in association management. And without the proper guidance or resources, chapters may struggle to meet the expectations of both members and the parent association. In an effort to strengthen chapter operations, organizations have found different solutions for providing their chapter leaders the practical support they need.
1. Discover Needs
Even if an association wants to give its chapters sufficient resources, that support won’t be useful if it doesn’t address their specific needs. Surveys are one way to determine what local volunteers are looking for.
Surveys “serve as a listening tool, because often it’s difficult for headquarters staff to physically be present at chapter events and chapter discussions—it can just be too difficult to get out there in person,” says J. Scott Douglas, senior director of membership and business development at the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). “So it’s a way to extend yourself and listen better.”
In preparation for its March 2017 strategy meeting with regional leadership, NSCA surveyed chapter leaders—the state and provincial directors—to identify their training, best practice, funding, and marketing needs. “I wanted to make sure that when [the regional directors] got here that we weren’t just going into strategic planning without insight and input from our 50 or so state directors,” Douglas says.
Survey responses revealed gaps in both volunteer training and funding, which NSCA has already taken preliminary steps to address. The organization is introducing online training—on topics like developing a state advisory board and building local relationships—that tracks a user’s progress through modules and quizzes. It’s also seeking extra sponsorship support for state and regional events.
The surveys helped NSCA determine which chapters needed extra help from their regional directors. And for headquarters staff and the board, it reminded them of the volunteers’ hard work and presented their needs and unique challenges in a digestible manner. “We can get very picky I think, especially at headquarters, about all the details and lose sight of the context that our volunteers live in,” Douglas says.
Of course, the challenge with surveys is getting busy volunteers to respond. Douglas recommends that associations keep their chapter surveys short, with questions that give the organization feedback it can immediately act on.
Douglas usually emails chapter directors a 10-question survey and sends a reminder email later in the 10-day response window. To boost response rates, emails note how long the survey takes to complete and that one respondent will win a prize. “They’re very busy people. They’re volunteering their time,” he says. “If I want to get authentic insight, the last thing I want to do is irritate them with a long survey.”
2. Encourage Improvement
When an association digs into its chapter network, it’s likely to find some chapters performing strongly and others needing improvement. To help the latter, the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) is in the process of establishing a chapter mentoring program.
“It’s not about pointing out faults or failures. It’s about identifying areas of improvement and ways that we can work together so everyone is elevated in their performance,” GBTA Senior Manager of Volunteer Relations Patrick Algyer says.
The program gauges each chapter’s individual performance and pinpoints challenges by requiring leaders to self-assess operations in four categories: member participation, leadership, communication, and organization and finance. Based on their scores in each area and its subcategories, chapters will be paired up with others they can either help or learn from.
“The ultimate goal is to identify areas where a chapter may be struggling with a particular area of their operation, and then we find a chapter that is excelling in that same area, and we pair them together,” Algyer says. “So really, it’s peer-to-peer mentoring for the chapters to elevate themselves.”
If a chapter can provide or needs help in more than one area, it may be paired up with multiple GBTA chapters. How the chapter leaders meet will depend on each group’s structure.
In addition to improving chapters, the scores will provide GBTA with more insightful metrics for understanding its chapter network. “I think by using this tool to self-evaluate, it’ll help the board members really see where they need to focus their attention,” Algyer says.
He stresses that volunteer engagement, rather than top-down direction, is essential to running a chapter-focused program. For example, GBTA’s Chapter President’s Council determined the categories that chapters measure themselves on and will be responsible for matching components based on their structure, size, preference, and performance.
“We really engage the volunteers. We make them part of the process of creating whatever it is that we’re working on,” Algyer says. “And with that time and investment that they’re having, the buy-in is very natural because they were part of the creating process.”
3. Share Information
To successfully carry out operations and make informed decisions on marketing, educational programming, and more, chapters need access to technology, information, and data. While some associations may offer online communities or chapter portals to meet this need, the Project Management Institute (PMI) built a component system (CS)—which hosts data on chapter charters, leadership, and membership—to not only ensure that its almost 300 global chapters have quick access to information, but also to inform headquarters staff on chapters’ performance and leaders.
“One of the things we wanted to make sure we do is have a support system in place to make sure that globally, our staff—which are located in different offices—and management are able to review how chapters are performing, as well as provide the chapters the membership data they need so that they’re able to provide services at the local level,” says Kristin Hodgson, CAE, PMI’s manager for chapter development in North America and Latin America.
Each chapter has access to the chapter reporting system (CRS) within the CS. From here, chapter leaders can view chapter-specific data and reports and demographic information about their members. Every 24 hours, each chapter’s CRS is updated with the new data entered into the system.
“Wherever [chapters] are locally, they are able to really see and gain a better picture of who their members are, where they’re located, who’s renewing, and who isn’t, to be able to make the decisions on providing programs and services to advance their profession,” Hodgson says.
The cache of data also helps chapters better target their marketing efforts. “And that helps really localize it and show PMI members or the PMI prospects in an area that they’re there as a person and a professional,” Hodgson says. “It’s a more personalized approach.”
Though PMI is a large association with the resources to create such a complex system, Hodgson says it can be scaled down and replicated at a smaller organization. First, an association must determine what data its chapters need access to in order to fulfill the organization’s mission.
At PMI, “we really want our volunteers to feel a sense of accomplishment, and to feel they’re gaining leadership skills and the opportunity to lead where maybe they can’t in their everyday life,” Hodgson says. “But we also understand they’re not association professionals, so we want to make sure we’re giving them tools for them and their chapter to be a success.”
Because, ultimately, providing support for chapters—first by knowing their needs, then by meeting those needs—helps them fulfill their purpose of reaching members at the local level, which can then lead to growth and expansion of the national or international organization.