The biggest challenge facing associations with chapter networks is "maintaining relevancy in a time where geographic boundaries are made increasingly irrelevant by technology," said one survey respondent in the 2016 Chapter Benchmarking Study [PDF], conducted by our firm, Mariner Management & Marketing, LLC. And this quote was by no means an outlier. The future for associations' geographic chapters is uncertain, and this model will be shaped largely by which of six trends gains the most momentum in 2017.
(1) Rehabbing the chapter model. A trend spotted back in the early 2000s has gained traction again. Our study predicts that 2017 will be a breakout year for innovation in the current chapter model. For example, associations like the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society, the American Association of Diabetes Educators, and the Council of Residential Specialists have adopted models that pare down the structure and scope of chapter networks, streamlining administrative responsibilities and enabling activities that meet the needs of members and their mission. In addition, the Association of Records Managers and Administrators International realigned its chapter and national roles, and the National Association of Realtors enacted a change in core standards that will have a ripple effect on chapters.
These associations aren't alone, but the solution may look different from association to association. According to the ASAE Foundation study Achieving Mutually Beneficial Volunteer Relationships [PDF], 44 percent of associations said they reviewed their chapter structure, and 41 percent made changes, adding or deleting chapters or shifting the mission of a component, within the past five years.
(2) Harnessing technology to support chapter success. Technology is key to enabling a change to chapter structure because associations can more readily provide integrated databases and registration systems, system-wide communications, and robust financial and banking solutions. These capabilities streamline administrative responsibilities and allow greater collaboration across the association to reduce duplicative member services.
When the central organization offers these solutions to chapters, it's a win-win. Technology can reduce the administrative load on chapters; optimize data collection, sharing, and use; and create a more seamless membership experience. More associations are exploring and adopting technology that benefits chapter management, as evidenced by an uptick in options being developed by technology solutions providers. When organizations invest in new technology offerings, it's often driven by industry demands.
(3) Letting the next generation take the reins. More associations are giving the next generation the opportunity to create their own chapters and models. For example, the Financial Planning Association's NexGen chapters, a network of local groups connected to their traditional chapters, is a thriving model that allows young financial planners to connect with peers through an online community and in-person conferences and gatherings.
(4) Feeling the pain of tightening resources. In the coming year, associations will continue to face challenges in recruiting volunteers at the local level. This trend, along with a reported tightening of sponsorship dollars for many chapter organizations, signals trouble ahead, because sponsors provide resources that are frequently the antidote to limited volunteers. As one chapter leader said at a chapter planning meeting recently: “We have about 12 months left, because declining sponsorship dollars means we won’t be able to afford our administrator, and there aren’t volunteers to pick up the responsibilities.” Solving the volunteer conundrum means embracing new volunteer models that capitalize on ad-hoc and episodic volunteering and adopting new technologies.
(5) Closing more chapters. Can chapters be saved? The dual pressures of tightening resources and losing sponsorship dollars will lead to more component closures unless associations can retool their models. However, this trend has an interesting twist, raising an important question—whether a closure is a negative or a positive. According to our study, chapter effectiveness in key areas like member engagement, leadership development, and member recruitment generally fails to meet expectations. Losing an ineffective chapter may mitigate risk.
(6) Calculating return on investment. Finally, according to our study, only 5 percent of associations calculate the value of their chapters. Based on interest in the study’s finding, a group of associations is undertaking the development of a model to calculate their ROI. [Note, contact us if you want to be involved in the ROI project; and plan to attend the session at ASAE's 2017 Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference.]
Can an association act on these trends? Yes, if it elevates the conversation about chapters to the broader conversation on member engagement, retention strategies, and leadership development. Chapters, whether they are independent or not, are one element of a vibrant community that an association can provide to its members.
The urgency to act as one association executive, Charles Deale, FASAE, CAE, Financial Executives International, explains is that "Chapters often are the primary—sometimes exclusive—way in which members interact with their association. An effective partnership between the parent organization and its affiliated chapters can help ensure the consistent delivery of value at the grassroots level, thus enhancing the overall membership experience."
Article originally appeared in ASAE AssociationsNow Plus; reprinted with permission