Have a Fireside Chat With Your Members at a Chapter Summit

Associations and their chapters are like families: You occasionally need to gather from near and far for face time and open dialogue. Here are some ideas for hosting a successful chapter summit.

We did it—we survived one of the coldest weeks of winter on record. And during this latest subzero chill, I was reminded about the power of fireside chats.

That’s because in the last few weeks, my family did a lot of talking next to our wood-burning stove. Like any holiday, there was laughing, reminiscing, and even some spirited arguments, all hosted in front of the living room hearth.

It occurred to me that associations and their chapters are kind of like my big (and somewhat crazy) family. Every now and then, it’s good to come together for open and honest dialogue.

That’s what the Associated General Contractors of America does three times each year at its chapter summits. ACG has more than 27,000 members and 90 chapters, and Christi Beatty, vice president of chapter support services, says these gatherings with chapter executives provide a forum to talk openly about the year’s successes and failures.

“We see it as a constant dialogue, and it works quite well,” she says. “While it’s not a perfect relationship, the chapters know they’re being heard and supported throughout the year.”

Regardless of how your affiliation agreement is structured, Beatty recommends that any federated organization consider using chapter summits to learn from members. Here are a few essentials that go into engineering a successful meet-up.

Plan Ahead

Mark Prevost, a senior growth consultant for Billhighway, has participated in many chapter summits as a speaker.

“I think they’re becoming more important than ever before,” he says. “It’s because more and more association leaders are recognizing that they need chapters to share a voice and be their boots on the ground.”

But not all chapter summits are created equal, Prevost says. He’s participated in a few where national staff facilitated all the sessions, with little participation or buy-in from chapters. These meetings felt more like dull trainings than opportunities for dialogue.

“We’ve seen a lot of associations go out and talk about all the things that chapters need to know and do. The agenda is driven by HQ,” he says, “when really HQ should be listening and asking: What do you need from us? What tools can we provide? That completely changes the dynamic of these meeting.”

Planning is key. A simple survey or a few phone calls with chapter representatives may identify common or persistent challenges that can be addressed as part of the agenda, Prevost says. And in many instances, chapter leaders should present at the meeting, sharing a success story or failure that others can learn from.

Incentivize Attendance

Chapter staff are busy running their own organizations, so you may need to dangle a carrot to encourage their attendance at a summit. This year, Beatty is offering chapter staff a steeply discounted registration fee for the ACG Annual Convention, where its next summit will be held. And the conference will include a specific learning track for chapter executives.

“Up until this year, we had not leveraged this meeting to offer our executives and chapter staff an opportunity to network and learn along a membership, marketing, and association management track,” Beatty says. “We’re about eight weeks out from our meeting, and we’re already ahead of last year’s registration total.”

The other two summits occur in summer and fall. The summer meeting is the most widely attended and gives chapter leaders face time with AGC’s president and executive leadership. Meanwhile, the fall summit is a chance to travel to Washington, DC, and bring two local-level volunteers for advocacy and lobbying on Capitol Hill.

“You’ve got to make it attractive to attend,” Beatty says. “These are moments to bring leaders together to deepen their engagement with the organization and tap into the resources and education they need. Ultimately, it’s about helping them do their jobs better.”

Have you had experience hosting chapter summits? What advice do you have for making them successful? Post your comments below.

(Warchi/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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