How to Lead on Improving Chapters

The relationship between associations and their components can be a fraught one. Creating a culture of trust and communication can make a difference.

In the association world, members get all the good metaphors: They’re champions, they’re leaders, they’re the most important piece in the puzzle. Chapters? Not so much. They are the children for whom the word “unruly” applies. They are the cats that will not be herded.

The distinction says something not just about how leaders perceive members, but also about how members wish to perceive themselves. They want to find common cause with their association’s mission but don’t want to be treated like (to pick another metaphor) cogs in a machine. Peggy Hoffman, FASAE, CAE, president of Mariner Management and Marketing, has been thinking about how to address that problem. It starts, she says, with a hard look at the chapter model that associations have gotten used to.

So many organizations start with something national and then push it down.

“In the past, components were like Mini-Mes,” she says. “They ran like a national organization, just at a smaller scale. They oftentimes mirrored the governance structure of the national organization, meaning that they would have a full-fledged board and an IRS designation, and they would try to run the same set of programs and services. And national organizations haven’t done a particularly good job of figuring out how to make the groups true collaborative partners.”

What does a healthy, communicative chapter relationship look like? Hoffman is one of the content leaders looking at that question at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition today in the Learning Lab “Association Hackathon: Retrofit for the 21st Century.” (A pop-up session on Tuesday will explore some of the products from the discussion.)

Rather than spilling out case studies and recommendations, the Learning Lab is designed as a brainstorming session to explore four areas that Hoffman says are critical to retooling chapters: better management tools, nontraditional models, better communication between headquarters and chapters, and encouraging chapters to be incubators for new ideas.

All of those points speak to associations being too top-down when it comes to managing components, but Hoffman says that can be particularly true when it comes to supporting new ideas and allow them to “trickle up” to headquarters.

“What if components were incubators?” she says. “What if you used your components, whether it’s around geography, interests, or disciplines, as an R&D arm? So many organizations start with something national and then push it down. But if you went out there with a more intentional lens, you can find little things that are happening, test them, and take them national.”

Many things can encourage those good things to happen, but two are critical, Hoffman says: trust between leadership and the chapters that a less traditional relationship can still be beneficial, and communication that allows both communities to hear each other as the relationship changes. Good training of chapter leaders is important on this front, she says. “Associations that have invested time in volunteer leadership development at the component level tend to have a better trust situation,” she says.

As for communication: Now that associations have so many outlets, in social media and otherwise, there are more opportunities than ever for leaders to engage with chapters and hear about their ideas. That communication can be internal, but also public-facing, like having chapters participate more directly in your social media accounts and podcasts.

But addressing communication shouldn’t just be a technology discussion, Hoffman says.

“Some associations have found that they have to go back to more face-to-face,” she says. “And the face-to-face has to be less ‘talk-to’ and more ‘converse.’ One of the things that we try to talk to folks about—when they say there are problems with their chapters or they say they are not hearing from the ground enough, or chapters feel like they’re not hearing from the parent organization enough—is to look at how many times they’re communicating and, more importantly, the way they’re communicating. If associations applied all the principles that they are applying to communicate to the larger organization and applied those to components, they would greatly improve their two-way dialogue and that trust.”

What does your association do that strengthens trust and communication with your chapters? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Kirill_Savenko/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!