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.