Challenges, Options and Best Practices for Association Chapter Models

Challenges, Options and Best Practices for Association Chapter Models
Group of hands together, representing teamwork in building an association's chapter model.

Why do members join your organization? At the highest level, your member’s reasons for joining fall into two categories: functional and emotional. The functional drivers serve a specific purpose, address a need or alleviate a pain point: I need a job, I want to meet peers in my field, I need education credits to maintain my license. The emotional drivers are those that intrinsically bind members to an organization and help an association emerge as “essential”: my friends are here, I am committed to my career, this is my professional home.

These days, we find that members typically join for functional reasons, and stay for emotional reasons. And often, these emotional connections are forged through peer interactions and relationship building at the local level. Beyond expanding your association’s mission and reach, chapters can deliver member value on a very deep, personal level.

While critical to the member experience, managing geographically disperse, volunteer-led, separately incorporated organizations is extraordinarily challenging on governance, operational, and administrative levels. Many associations also discover that their chapter model is perpetuated for years, with little meaningful change, because “we’ve always operated this way,” rather than intentionally designed to maximize efficiency or align with the organization’s strategic plan. As you evaluate your chapter structure, consider these questions to help guide your membership model’s path forward.

What are my 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 models exist with varying levels of independence and control—each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

For example, organizations that embody an autonomous chapter model may share a common mission, but are not materially related in structural, operational or financial matters. In such cases, the national and chapter organizations function independently, promoting membership in the same markets without reciprocity. On the other side of the spectrum stands the integrated model, where members are automatically assigned chapter membership upon joining and the chapter and national organizations are closely aligned in message and mission.

When evaluating which structure is the best fit for your organization, it is helpful to consider its value proposition to the member. Will streamlining the join process, dues structure, messaging and benefits across your chapter and national organizations facilitate a more meaningful member experience, or is there a business case to be made for separating these efforts administratively while retaining your common mission?

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

Whether you believe your chapter model needs minor tweaks or a seismic disruption, employing a data-driven approach is key. Research usually starts with an evaluation of the association’s current state to gain visibility into the membership and financial factors across the entire organization. From there, it is essential to capture the perspectives of all key stakeholders, ranging from the Board of Directors and most engaged core to less engaged, “rank and file” members using both quantitative (survey research) and qualitative (focus groups or interviews) methods.

As you look to implement change, engaging a task force or “study group” that is representative of differing constituent geographies, and viewpoints, is highly beneficial in pressure-testing ideas and socializing potential changes at the chapter and local levels.

What does chapter model success look like?

Chapters and national organizations realize success when recognizing their relationship is a true partnership. Aligned in mission and brand but distinct in programming that reflects geographic considerations, a strong network works together to recruit, retain and engage members across the organization.

Chapters often lack the administrative manpower and resources to accomplish certain tasks alone, and without the support of the national organization the member experience can vary widely across locations. Associations deliver a more consistent and quality member experience when they clearly and transparently articulate the roles, responsibilities and expectations of each entity, while also holding the national office accountable to the same quality standards.

McKinley Advisors brings extensive research and consulting expertise associations need to optimize their chapter models. Download your Chapter Models Checklist here to understand the range of chapter engagement models that exist across the association landscape and learn best practices that will maximize the success of your approach.

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