Do you remember that Android commercial from last year? It was full of animal friends, from rhinos and sheep walking together to a parrot stealing pasta from a waiting dog. The animals were different, but they were friends working together to have fun or snag a tasty meal.
Associations and their chapters should have the same kind of relationship. Each can be unique, but ultimately they're both working toward the same goal—providing benefits for members.
Unfortunately, association-chapter relationships aren't always in the best shape. According to leading research from Membership Marketing, almost 50% of associations have chapters, and it's not unusual for relationships between the two to be rocky.
Where the problem starts is likely different for every association. Chapters, while part of the association as a whole, vary greatly in terms of structure. They also have many independent functions such as events and regional education programs, which can lead to chapters emphasizing their own events and needs over association-wide goals. Those differences in priority can harm relationships between chapters and associations.
On the other hand, associations may have different expectations in terms of resource use and support, which could rub chapters the wrong way. Then, finally, there's the issue of inclusion. A poor relationship can begin, or be made worse, if chapters don't feel heard or included in the association.
Regardless of how the issue starts, your association is tied to your chapters in name and mission, so resolving problems to create a positive, mutually beneficial relationship is essential. Here are four steps to help you repair your association's relationship with its chapters.
4 Steps to Improving Chapter Relationships
Step 1) Open Up a Dialogue
Like any relationship, communication is key to a positive connection with your chapters. Take the first step and start a conversation with your chapter leaders.
Since chapters are affiliated with your association, one of your first discussions should be about your organization's strategic plan and vision. Share the plan with your chapters, and make sure their goals are aligned with yours. You should be working toward many of the same overall initiatives, whether that's professional education for members or legislative advocacy.
During this and following conversations, be open to feedback and criticism. Your dialogue with chapters is an opportunity to work out problems on both sides. Chapter and association representatives should feel comfortable communicating issues that have come up, and working to fix them. Problems you may run into could include misaligned priorities, misuse of funds, poor communication, and more.
Empower association employees and chapter volunteers to keep the dialogue open and make improvements to resolve any current or future issues that come up.
Step 2) Support Your Chapters
Every association supports its chapters differently, with some lending only their name and others providing chapters with more comprehensive assistance. Some common ways that associations help chapters are by providing a website, database management system, start-up assistance, dues collection, insurance, or communication services. Chapters often also receive a certain amount of funds from the association to use for events or member programs.
Decide how your association is going to support its chapters and then discuss the decision with chapter leaders. Take any feedback and requests chapters have into consideration, and make changes or improvements if necessary after your dialogue.
Association executives should also evaluate chapter support periodically. Check in with other staff members and chapter leaders often to find make sure that support is meeting chapter needs. Do chapters need any other assistance as time goes on? Does the association have any changes to its resources that may affect chapters? Regularly communicate changes and how you plan to adapt to them as part of your ongoing chapter relationship.
Step 3) Set Realistic Expectations
Both your association and its chapters need established, realistic expectations, and one of the best ways to institute these is with a formal agreement. Association leaders should draft a legal document that details everything your association and its chapters can expect from one another. Be as specific as possible so that everyone knows their responsibilities.
Your formal document should set expectations for how involved your association will be with the chapter, and make a commitment to a certain level of support. For example, how much financial assistance will you give the chapter, and how much fundraising will the chapter be responsible for? To make this easier, go through your association's finances and resources before drafting the agreement, so you know what you can potentially give to chapters.
Once you know what your association is bringing to the table, determine what your chapters should provide for members in terms of networking, events, educational programs, newsletters, and other benefits. How should chapters be using your organization's supporting resources? All of this should be included in your formal association-chapter agreement to ensure that chapters are providing benefits and services that help fulfill your association's mission.
Step 4) Get Involved
Relationships with chapters are ongoing, so get your board and your association's headquarter staff involved. Visit chapters, attend events, and get to know staff, members, and volunteers. If chapters are volunteer-based, give those volunteers the same attention you would staff members.
Create opportunities for positive interaction through recognition and awards. Recognize chapters that are performing well in terms of member retention, acquisition, engagement, and advocacy. Try to consistently reward outstanding work and make both individual volunteers and chapters as a whole feel special.
When possible, get association leaders to recognize chapters in person or at association-wide events. Getting your association's executive team and national events involved will emphasize how important chapters and their performance are. When you make chapters feel like they're important and contributing to something bigger, you'll also help build loyalty and dedication.
Remember to keep the dialogue open through this step and beyond. Feedback from your association, and to your association from chapters, is important in staying involved. Keep dealing with changes and new problems that come up on a proactive basis, and you'll gain your chapters' trust.
Strengthening Chapter Relationships Takeaway
Association-chapter relationships can be rocky, but remember that chapters are an important part of your organization. They help provide local and regional support, and can often provide more personal interaction and engagement opportunities for people in the area. Chapters also drive awareness and recognition for your association as a whole.
Consistently work to build positive relationships with your chapters through open communication, technology, support, and recognition. The results will be better relationships between your association and its chapters, as well as a better, more unified experience for members.