The Changing Role of Association Chapters

A new benchmarking study indicates that associations view chapters as an increasingly important element of their member engagement strategy. Meanwhile, chapter membership structures and programs are starting to shift in new ways to support members.

When you think of the archetype association-chapter relationship, too often it’s top-down, where power moves from headquarters to the team at the local component. That’s an “old power” dynamic that can hamper members’ sense of affiliation, trust, and loyalty to the organization.

However, when the relationship is redefined and flattened to a more horizontal share of power, where the national organization supports chapters and vice versa, the member ultimately wins.

That’s one critical finding in the 2019 Chapter Benchmarking Report [PDF] from Mariner Management and Marketing and Billhighway, which was released last week and tracks chapter trends since 2016, the last time the study was conducted. Mariner President Peggy Hoffman says more associations are recalibrating their chapter relationships and focusing on chapter initiatives to increase member engagement opportunities.

In the 2019 study, “member engagement rose even higher on the list of strategic importance of chapter programs,” Hoffman wrote in a blog post detailing the findings. “In fact, 64 percent viewed member engagement as an ‘absolutely essential’ role for their chapters,” especially as attending national or global events may be too expensive and time-consuming for many professionals.

“This shift is occurring as associations come to understand that even the digital generations seek face-to-face opportunities to connect, learn, volunteer, and socialize with their peers, mentors, and clients,” she wrote.

Structures in Flux

The emphasis on engagement comes as chapters are focusing on meeting members wherever they are. Many respondents in the study said they’re considering changes to chapter boundaries that align with members’ locations.

Of respondents with components, 70 percent said they closed a chapter in the last two years, which might sound like bad news, but Hoffman says the finding suggests that innovation in chapter models is gaining traction.

“When you get into the details of this data, respondents said that when they closed chapters, they often merged them,” she said in an interview. “It’s a reorganization that I think is adaptive to the local level, and it shows that chapters are playing with traditional structures more.”

While the most common chapter model remains a state structure (81 percent), 69 percent of associations said they’re using a mix of options that might include chapters organized by metro area or by region encompassing several states or countries.

“What you’re seeing now is associations saying, we’re not tied to a specific chapter structure as much as we had been before,” Hoffman said.

And chapters don’t necessarily have to be tied to a physical location. At NIGP, the Institute for Public Procurement, virtual chapters connect members who share similar interests from thousands of miles away.

Emphasis on PD

Virtual learning and professional development could help boost member engagement at the local level. Mariner Management CEO Peter Houstle encourages associations to consider a hybrid approach to PD, offering both in-person and virtual learning events through local components.

“Chapters used to make a living off in-person events only, but now that’s harder to do because there are so many more competing entities and channels out there,” he said. “Chapters can still be a critical delivery channel for education and networking, but I think they have to fundamentally adapt—for instance, use virtual webinars as a gathering tool for members between face-to-face meetings.”

Many associations are getting that message loud and clear. According to this year’s report, 91 percent of chapters are designing their own mix of PD programs, both in-person and virtual events—an increase from 68 percent in 2016.

When you ask associations how valuable chapter programming is, 65 percent say it’s “absolutely essential” or “very important.”

“I think PD is one of the driving motivators for a lot of members,” Houstle said. “Fundamentally, [chapter leaders] have to reevaluate how they’re connecting [with members] in the 21st century.”

(coscaron/iStock/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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