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March 25, 2021

Best Practices for Association Chapter Models

While association chapter models often play a key role in the member experience, they can be resource-intensive and challenging to manage. Chapter models often remain static because “we’ve always operated this way.”

Right now, associations are looking to enhance value through new digital channels and respond to the growing need for connection stemming from a year of not seeing colleagues, friends, mentors and peers in-person. Chapters represent a strong asset, but associations may be asking fundamental questions like:

  • How can we ensure impact and value across our network without over-taxing our limited resources?
  • Does our chapter model support or hinder our mission and goals?
  • How do we compare to other associations in terms of performance?
  • What standards should be in place to ensure quality?
  • What services can our association provide to support the chapters?
  • How do we know our chapters are delivering value?

Consider the following steps to help guide your chapter model.

What role do chapters play today?

Before you begin a full assessment of your chapter model, gain clarity around the role your chapters play today:

  • Workforce Training and Support: Do your chapters help deliver essential education and training to the field?
  • Advocacy and Regulation: Do your chapters advance consequential issues and drive an advocacy agenda?
  • Leadership Pipeline: Are your chapters critical to developing the future pipeline of the association through leadership opportunities?
  • Information Flow: Does your association rely on chapters to communicate critical messages that advance your mission or the profession at-large?

Your chapters likely serve many of these roles to varying degrees.

How can chapters continue to support your mission and strategies?

After identifying current chapter roles, you want to understand how those roles will help advance or hinder your overall mission and strategy. This knowledge influences the types of models and relationships you may want to explore.

For example, it might be common in one model for chapters to deliver networking, meetings, chapter-developed education and communications. However, the quality and quantity of these resources could vary widely between chapters—even when those chapters fall within the same network.

As a result, associations are increasingly exploring more flexible options to accommodate chapters with different strengths and weaknesses within their structures. This allows the network to leverage the strengths of one chapter while ensuring greater consistency and fostering innovation across the local member experience. By understanding and carefully assessing the options, you can ensure mission and strategy alignment across the network.

What are your chapter model options?

There is no one-size-fits-all model for how a national organization and its chapters should operate. Rather, a range of association chapter models exists with varying levels of independence and control. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Autonomous Chapter Model
  • Organizations that embody an autonomous chapter model may share a common mission, but are not materially related in structure, operations or finances.
  • The national and chapter organizations function independently, promoting membership in the same markets without reciprocity.
  • Advantages: Each entity can operate independently, which promotes innovation, responsiveness and customization. The national organization and chapters are clearly differentiated.
  • Disadvantages: Members have limited incentive to join both the national association and the local chapter. Other challenges include increased competition and lack of consistency.
Integrated Chapter Model
  • On the other side of the spectrum, an integrated model means that members are automatically assigned chapter membership when joining.
  • In this example, the chapters and national organization align closely in message and mission.
  • Advantages: This model promotes consistency, collaboration and shared accountability. It also streamlines administration.
  • Disadvantages: Members have limited flexibility in joining. Other challenges include a complicated and potentially confusing structure, as well as redundancy in services.

Again, many associations are exploring greater flexibility within their structures to leverage unique markets and chapter strengths. Some examples include:

  • Giving the members greater choice in how and at what level they join
  • Allowing for informal groups to exist outside the more formal chapter network
  • Encouraging more chapter-driven programming through recognition programs and funds
  • Leveraging the power of digital platforms to share data across the network

How can I evaluate and implement changes to my current model?

Which structure is the best fit for your organization? The answer: the one that delivers the greatest value to your members. To evaluate the potential options, ask questions like:

  • Will streamlining the join process, dues structure, messaging and benefits across your chapters and national organization facilitate a more meaningful member experience?
  • Is there a business case for separating the administration of these entities while retaining a common mission?
  • What support can you provide to chapters to maximize impact?
  • How will you know when you’re successful?

Whether your chapter model needs minor refinement or an overhaul, employ a data-driven approach to ensure success. Evaluate the association’s current state to gain a solid understanding of membership and financial performance across the entire organization.

Next, capture the perspectives of all key stakeholders. Conduct quantitative (survey) and qualitative (focus groups or interviews) research to capture perspectives from the board of directors to “rank and file” members.

As you move forward, engage a task force that represents a diversity of geographies and viewpoints. Use the task force to pressure-test ideas and socialize potential changes.

What does chapter model success look like?

Chapters and national organizations realize success when they are aligned but distinct. A common mission and brand ties them together but distinct programming sets the local, state and national organizations apart.

Remember that associations deliver a more consistent and quality member experience when they clearly articulate the roles, responsibilities and expectations of each entity—including the national office. Chapters often lack the administrative manpower and resources to accomplish certain tasks alone. The national office plays a critical role in monitoring the member experience across locations and providing support.

McKinley Advisors brings extensive research and consulting expertise to help associations optimize their chapter models. Interested in learning more about the range of chapter engagement models that exist, and best practices for governing them? Download our Chapter Models Checklist or contact us.

Download the Chapter Models Checklist.


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