Reaching Detente With Your Chapters

One of the truisms of association management is that national/chapter relationships are often…fraught. Even though we’re all ostensibly on the same side, it doesn’t always feel that way. Each side feels like the other is holding out on the them or trying to gain advantage, and the lack of trust that results makes it hard to communicate and to work together for the good of the organization as a whole and, ultimately, the profession or industry you serve.

How do you get past this?

I was recently chatting with some colleagues who were working through this exact problem. Details concealed, of course, but a little background. The organization has chapters in every state. As is common, some are quite strong and many are less so. The national provides staff support for chapters, but it’s in the form of two staff members who are both in DC (and in the eastern time zone).

The national wants to switch to an “account executive” model, dividing the country into regions and locating a regional chapter support manager in each of them. Those regional managers would still report to the national membership director, but they would work remotely and be charged solely with supporting the chapters in their region (so they would really work FOR the chapters).

Sounds great, right? Unless you’re a strong chapter that’s worried that this is a power grab by the national. And there is one chapter in particular with a strong, nationally-known executive and a full staff of their own. The national staff is concerned that she will lead the revolt that will doom their plan to help struggling chapters by providing better overall support and coordination.

What we realized is that this apparent negative could actually be a huge advantage. But it would all depend on the approach. Going to the strong chapter executive with, “This is the plan that we, the national, in our great and mighty wisdom, have devised for you, the poor little chapters, and you’ll accept it whether you want to or not!” would result in disaster. It turns her into an opponent immediately. “My chapter is just fine, and we don’t need your help/interference, thanks.”

But, if the national approached the strong chapter executive with this as a POSSIBLE idea to provide better support for the chapters that they’d very much like her to PILOT for them before they consider rolling it out to all the chapters, suddenly, we’re on the same side of the table working together to solve a problem.

Of course, the national has to be genuine. The program really IS a pilot and is open to modification – or even being dumped – based on the experiences of the beta group, which should probably consist of some or all of chapters in the strong chapter executive’s region. The staff person would remain at the national headquarters during the pilot, but he would switch his work schedule to better align with the region’s time zone. And if the beta testers came up with a better idea, the national would pilot that as well.

What kind of tiger-style management-fu can you deploy to start standing next to your chapters facing issues together rather than standing opposite them and *being* the issue?

3 thoughts on “Reaching Detente With Your Chapters”

  • I try to keep it simple. We offer support that is optional and chapters that wish to take us up on it do so. If they don't, no worries.

    In this case study, why not exempt those chapters with staff of their own from the account executive support unless they wish to have it?

    With all the technology and communication options available to us today, very little requires a monolithic approach.

  • I like where David is going with his thinking. If we think differently about the current tolls and technologies we have available to facilitate strong chapters, we might end up with a more varied approach.

    I've worked with a few groups on this topic so far in 2012 and have been surprised a bit at the lack of clarity some had about what they were trying to accomplish with the chapter/component structure. And some components couldn't quite seem to grasp that the national organization has a strong and legitimate interest in how a local entity using its name might separate. Seems like that is a potential starting place for some associations to have conversation. Without that shared understanding (what are we trying to do collectively, what are we each best positioned to contribute, and how can we support/help each other do its best) I'm not sure the rest matters all that much.

  • Thanks for the comments, guys. I have this picture in my head of a table, where, if we're sitting opposite each other, we're set up to conflict, but if we sit next to each other, we can focus together on the issue on the table. It's all about figuring out how to get on the same side of the table.

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