Could the Pandemic Offer an Opportunity to Optimize Your Chapters?

Last year, the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society found a sudden interest in its local chapter meetings at a global level—and it’s leading to questions about whether its chapter model should be more topic-based. Your association might want to ask the same question.

The pandemic highlighted some fascinating surprises about the potential for how associations could function.

One such lesson: When the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society (RAPS) put its chapter events online in a free virtual format, the organization found a sudden surge of interest in those chapter events—which now could draw interest globally based on its topic rather than being simply geographically oriented. According to RAPS’ director of stakeholder engagement, Wesley Carr, this interest was something of a happy accident resulting from going virtual, as the organization was really aiming to build value for its existing members during a difficult time.

“We saw hundreds of people,” Carr says. “On some webcasts, it was over 500 people. These folks were from different parts of the world.”

As the pandemic shifted and the association changed to a nominal paid model for these virtual events, the number of attendees has gone down—but attendance and engagement are still higher than they were before the pandemic. The global interest in local chapters has led to some serious discussions about whether chapters should be structured around subject matter rather than simply around location.

“The pandemic, obviously, has forced us to change our strategy and our focus in a lot of ways. So we’re trying to identify ways to provide those opportunities for people to connect with one another,” Carr says. “However, what we’ve seen through this pandemic through the virtual world is that connecting them around regions is not necessary.”

Potential Benefits of Going Topic-Based

While the association is reviewing its options, leaders have discussed this as a potential path forward for the organization as its chapter model shows real value for new types of members. Among the ideas that have emerged for topic-based chapters:

Making room for less prominent regions. Carr says some parts of the world may not be able to support a standalone chapter of RAPS. But the pandemic has offered those countries—he cites New Zealand as an example—an opportunity to connect with members in other parts of the world. If the association reverted to its previous model, he says, New Zealand-based members would lose the access they gained during the pandemic. But a lasting shift to a topic-based model could help bring that value to New Zealand and other parts of the world. “Now, they could do programs that are accessible by everybody, or they could participate in the programs that are being offered by headquarters as well as other chapters,” Carr says. “So they are excited now because they’ve been able to connect, when they haven’t been for several years.”

Narrowing in on regional interests. No matter the model RAPS chooses, Carr says it is still focused on in-person networking as a bedrock element of chapter meetings. One approach could be to pinpoint localities that might specialize in different aspects of regulatory affairs, presenting a way to bring in elements of a topic-based approach to existing regional chapters. This offers the potential to create new types of in-person chapter events based on topic, Carr explains. “We want to capture the face-to-face networking connection component, but do it under an umbrella of topics that people are already leaning towards,” he says.

What Other Associations Can Learn

Carr admits this can be a lot for associations to consider, especially as the virtual environment has shifted so much around audience expectations.

“For the most part, all organizations are providing some form of virtual activity,” Carr says. “But because we have the world we’ve lived in the last year and a half, we have been able to expose our content to members that never engaged with us—and frankly, some nonmembers that never engaged with us—because we have so many more virtual offerings. And so it’s tough to put that genie back in the bottle.”

But thinking about chapter organization in new ways could help solve a natural problem that can emerge with regional chapters, he says: “The content tended to lean towards whoever’s on the leadership team at that time.”

In the future, building stronger member engagement might be more than a game of location. It could be a game of relevance.

(filo/DigitalVision Vectors)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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