What’s Changing for Chapters?

Cover of the What's Changing for Chapters benchmarking report published by Mariner Management and billhighway in January 2022

Mariner Management and billhighway recently released the third edition of their chapter benchmarking report, and I had the opportunity to interview Peggy Hoffman and Peter Houstle about it.

Q: This is, I believe, the third edition of the chapter benchmarking report. What’s changed between this round of data collection and the previous two rounds? What really jumps out to you as being different this time? Did you learn anything that surprised you?

Nothing really jumps out as new or different with respect to chapter structure, operations and performance. All three “deserts” (data, volunteer, and strategic focus) identified at the end of the report have been around for quite a while. The additional inputs noted below helped validate the existence and extent of the deserts.

The substantive change, a shift to virtual events, produced an unexpected outcome for all in two respects, also as noted in the report. Specifically, time zones, rather than geography, redefined operational boundaries. The shift to a virtual environment produced several interesting side effects. Many chapter members who had never participated in traditional in-person events showed up for virtual programs—suggesting an opportunity for responsive chapters to expand their value proposition beyond those members willing to get in a car. At the same time, paradoxically, this shift also placed chapters in direct competition with programs delivered by the central organization (association headquarters/HQ) and other chapters. This, in turn, begs the questions: “Who is the target audience for chapters?” and “How do chapters best compliment/complete the value proposition for members working in tandem with both HQ and other chapters?”

Q: One change I noticed is that you expanded your data gathering quite a bit – interviews, focus groups, two new surveys. What caused you to add those components?

While they certainly have the finger on the pulse of their chapters, CRPs [component relations professionals] are still limited in their exposure to all the forces at play. Chapter leaders come to the role with a wide variety of motivations, which are not always in sync with the strategic goals of the association. CEOs have multiple stakeholders whom they need to satisfy, some who view chapters as a drain on resources better used elsewhere and others who have an exaggerated sense of the value chapters actually deliver. Together, all three perspectives help us better understand the forces at play and potentially illuminate strategies that could produce a more realistic set of expectations and operating structure for chapters.

Q: You note that performance is hard to measure, in part because a significant percentage of chapters are completely opaque to their national organization. What are good practices around data sharing associations should be following, particularly with regards to measures of success? You *can* track all kinds of things: What metrics actually matter to chapter success?

The “data desert” identified in the report presents a daunting challenge to everyone. As we frequently state, “the plural of anecdote is not data,” though the majority of associations and their chapters remain limited to anecdote as a key source of performance information. The associations who have begun to step up to this challenge effectively have done so by insisting on a common set of administrative platforms for membership and program management and employ many of the principles highlighted in Getting to the “Good Stuff”: Evidence-Based Decision Making for Associations. Their program metrics go beyond “butts in seats” to look at meaningful impact on job and organizational performance. Though these are difficult measures to capture directly, post-program surveys, for example, can identify the extent to which members perceive a tangible benefit from their participation…all of which can be captured and reported via data systems.

Q: You asked a lot of questions about dues structure and the relationship between chapter membership and national membership – any innovation happening there that you think is particularly promising?

This has always been a fraught area for associations. Chapters within a unified dues structure (i.e. the member pays chapter dues regardless, whether those dues are “included” or listed separately in the dues billing) have no direct market incentive to perform, so the association has to rely on other mechanisms to ensure chapters deliver. Sadly, these incentives tend to be checklists rather than goals and lack a unified data system to track performance. Chapters which collect a dues payment independent of HQ tend to view themselves as in competition with HQ for membership, often resulting in cannibalization rather than collaboration. While we will almost always argue in favor of unified dues, that system needs a unified data system and meaningful goals training to drive performance.

Q: Chapter leaders often have an industry background. Even when they’re professional association execs, they may find themselves with unfamiliar responsibilities because the chapter they’re running is small – or even micro – staff. In short, we need to train our chapter leaders, but we often don’t do a very good job at it, particularly since volunteers may be term-limited so, as you note, they just start to get the hang of the job and then it’s time to step down in favor of the next volunteer leader. What does the data show to be effective?

Interestingly, the answer to this question lies far more in the volunteer research we are conducting for the ASAE Research Foundation. As noted in the Benchmarking report, the farm-team paradox often hamstrings volunteer development because chapters rarely have an effective volunteer development program. As a result, volunteers who come up through chapters often have serious misconceptions about the role of a volunteer and bring bad habits around communications, decision-making, and more to their volunteer role at the HQ level.

The answer lies in a more comprehensive approach to volunteer development that starts at the chapter level with strong support from HQ. This approach ensures all volunteers begin their career with a solid grounding in association 101, volunteer 101, and “HQ” 101, and participate in a mutually beneficial relationship with HQ.

Q: It’s almost trite to ask about the pandemic at this point, but what pandemic-driven changes do you think will persist beyond the pandemic? What’s permanently (or at least long-term) changed as a result of the pandemic?

We’re all Zoomers now!

Kidding aside, everyone has discovered that getting in a car is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to both content delivery and community development. A more rational blended approach should allow associations and their chapters to reach a broader swath of members more effectively and also expand opportunities for volunteers and volunteering.

Q: One CEO said: “One-third of our members love the chapters, one-third hate the chapters, and one-third ask, ‘What’s a chapter?’” We all know that not every member uses every benefit – in fact, associations don’t have enough staff to accommodate that level of involvement. Do you have any sense of how that 1/3-1/3-1/3 ratio compares against awareness and use of other membership benefits?

We believe the answer lies in recognition by both chapters and HQ that the role of chapters should be limited to those activities where the chapters can make a high quality, meaningful, and complimentary contribution to the member value proposition. Being a “mini-HQ” is neither viable nor acceptable.

Q: 70% of CEOs give their chapters a failing grade. That seems…bad. Yet you note that associations benefit from a local presence for our traditional key roles of networking, education, and advocacy. You also posit that the chapter model is antiquated. Should we be looking at a new model for providing that local presence, and if so, what model(s) do you think merit consideration?

Yes, the 20th century chapter model is antiquated, but there remains, in most cases, the need for a viable local presence from both a content and community perspective. We believe a model that relies on a “franchise” administrative structure (i.e. unified, coherent management systems combined with locally responsive programming) can deliver the best of both worlds – a truly symbiotic relationship between chapters and HQ along with an accurate, data-based assessment of performance.

Q: I noticed you added a “conversation starters” component to each major section of the report. What was your thinking behind that? How do you envision associations using them?

As noted in the report, data tends to raise more questions than it answers, and it’s the very process of questioning that often helps us better understand our assumptions and biases/blind spots and also expose potential opportunities we couldn’t see otherwise. At the risk of redundancy, I think we made this case quite well in Getting to the “Good Stuff”: Evidence-Based Decision Making for Associations.

Q: You close the report by talking about three “deserts” – around data, volunteering, and strategy – and propose three attendant actions, so I think we may already know the answer to my final question: What advice would you have for associations going forward? What should association execs take away from this report?

We came away from this research with a sense that many, if not most, associations are simply treading water when it comes to their chapters. They keep doing what they’re doing because that’s what they’ve always done and they lack the motivation and/or vision to change – see Einstein’s definition of insanity. We would argue that more of the same (or even the ambiguous “more of the same, but better”) will not keep associations relevant in the 21st century. While we can’t offer any guaranteed silver bullets, we can say with a fair degree of certainty change and relevance go hand in hand.

You can download the full report, A Look at What’s Changing for Chapters: 2020 Chapter Performance & Benchmarking Report, at https://marinermanagement.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/2022-Association-Chapter-Benchmarking-Report_Final.pdf

Peter Houstle, CEO and co-founder, Mariner Management is an association exec who always asks “what does the data say?” and lives by the motto: form follows function.

Peggy Hoffman, FASAE, CAE, is Mariner’s president/co-founder who believes in the power of conversation to move associations.

Boosting Membership Retention from the Start: Your Members’ First 3 Months

Editorial note: the following is a guest blog from Callie Walker of MemberClicks

Does membership retention really begin the second a member joins your association?

It should! The better you onboard, the more likely your members are to renew.

So the question then becomes…how do you effectively onboard your new members? What should you be doing in their first few months? Here’s a breakdown:

Month 1 – Welcome

When a member first joins, it’s important to reach out to them in a timely manner. Be proactive and extremely responsive (you want to start off on the right foot, after all!). That said, you don’t want to come across as spammy, so spread your communications out, at least a little bit.

  • Send a welcome email with login credentials to the members-only portal.You want your new members to login ASAP, so make it easy for them by giving them all the info (links included!) they need.
  • Post a hearty welcome on your website.Not only will this promote your new members, but it will give them content to share on their own social media channels as well.
  • Follow up with a phone call. Within a week of sending login credentials, contact all of your new members who have NOT accessed the members-only portal. (You want to make sure they’re not having login difficulties.)
  • Use social media to welcome your new members.A quick tweet or Facebook post garners the attention of your new members and gives them that “VIP” feeling. (Who doesn’t love a shoutout?!)
  • Prepare to welcome your new members in your next newsletter.Keep a running list of all your new members (particularly as they fall between newsletters) and make SURE you don’t forget anyone.

Month 2 – Connect

This month is all about deepening the connection you have with your new members and strengthening their sense of belonging within your organization. Take some time to create personal (and unique) touch points for your new members.

  • Write and mail a personal note.Among all the emails, texts, and letters with digital signatures, a simple handwritten note can really stand out. Be authentic here – your members will appreciate it.
  • Schedule a ribbon cutting, open house, and/or other celebratory events.Market the event(s) on your website, social media channels, and via email. Your goal should be to introduce your new members to as many current members as possible.
  • Set up a forum or other personalized area just for new members.Every week, engage your new members in conversation, answer their questions, and share announcements (via a new members-only circle). The more you initiate conversation, the more they’ll likely partake.
  • Introduce them to a member ambassador.If possible, match your newbies with current members who have similar interests and/or expertise. This kind of mentoring can help your new members get acclimated (and engaged) at a quicker pace.
  • Make a special delivery.Surprise your new members with a special delivery! If you hosted an event (for example, the ribbon cutting), bring a framed photo or a special plaque. Other ideas: A branded mug filled with candy or free tickets to an event with a welcome note from the president.

Month 3 – Engage

To boost retention, it’s crucial to engage your new members as soon as possible. Use month three to make sure your first two months’ strategies were successful. By the end of month three, you should have welcomed, connected, and engaged with new members in a way that’s meaningful to them.

  • Post pictures from your celebratory events.If you hosted any new member celebrations, post about them on social media! This is a great way to keep that excitement (and engagement) going.
  • Follow up with your member ambassadors.Call or email your member ambassadors to see how things are going and if there’s anything you can do to help them engage your new members.
  • Send a postcard of upcoming events.Send your new members a postcard with a calendar listing of upcoming events. This will be a great resource for them to reference in the future.
  • Reach out.Call your new members to discuss – one-on-one – how their membership is going so far. Mention upcoming events, referrals, and specific ways to get involved. (If they haven’t attended a new member orientation yet, this is the perfect time to sign them up.)

Got the first three months down? What should you be doing after? When should you start encouraging members to renew? What should you sayto encourage members to renew?

MemberClicks can help! In our free Membership Retention Kit, we explain how to demonstrate your association’s benefits, how to create an effective membership retention webpage, when to send renewal reminder emails (plus templates for each touch), and more! Click here to check it out!