4 Trends Impacting Association Chapters

What can you learn from a dozen very different associations evaluating and re-imagining their geographic components in the U.S. and globally? We’re knee-deep in work with seven associations and have in the past four years walked alongside five others on this journey from where we are seeing four key trends or observations about chapters that are urging us to break out of the mold.

Observation #1:  Success with chapters is contingent upon robust membership and adequate resources.  Many people ask us what is the minimum number for a chapter. They don’t often enough ask us what is the minimum resources needed. While we don’t profess to have the magical member number, in our work and in the research we are conducting on chapter benchmarking (report due in June), we sense that number is likely north of 100. Why? Below that and chapters struggle with critical mass to generate volunteer hours, drive
participation and support minimal infrastructure.

But the equally important question is the resource one – does the association have staff and dollars to sufficiently support volunteer-run groups. You see if HQ can fill in critical gaps vis-à-vis programming, financial and data reporting, technology access, small organizations can focus on mission rather than administrivia.

Our 2016 industry benchmarking study (in analysis now) reports that on average associations dedicate 3.3 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff primarily to chapter support with 6.3 others who have chapter support as a secondary role. The average total FTE staff for respondents is 90 with annual budgets reported as under $1M (41%), $1-5M (20%), over $5M (39%).

Observation #2: The U.S. chapter model isn’t the only nor the best solution in many cases for building a global base. ASAE’s study of going global showed that U.S. Associations with success around the world begin with a global strategy, that is, an understanding that
they need to consider not how do we replicate our US operations, but how do we align our international strategy with our mission and vision and do so in a way that leverages the unique attributes of each country. For example, knowing what to standardize (e.g., content) and what to customize (e.g., membership and structure).  Many sources on the topic of globalization cite that membership is often one of the most
difficult and least profitable offerings for associations to deliver.

Terrance Barkan CAE, global strategist who conducts the profession’s leading global survey reports that “What experience and the survey results tell us is that the business model that has made you successful in your home market is probably not going to look like the
business model you will need to succeed in other countries.” 

Observation #3: Chapter involvement is trending down. In a scan of associations for one sector, most reported only about 20% of all members attend chapter-hosted events. Moreover, in this particular sector, four of eleven reported a decline in participation which prompted major re-organization of their geographic components.

Observation #4: Associations are reporting that traditional chapters are struggling to perform which has led to change in component programs. Two studies support this. Associations in our benchmarking study reported chapters as having limited effectiveness in delivering professional development (2.94), member engagement (2.84) or member retention (3.12) based on a 5-point scale with 5=extremely effective.

2015 ASAE Foundation Study on volunteering highlighted that component (which includes chapters and other member communities) structures are also changing: 44% indicate reviewing their structure and 41% added or deleted
components or made a change to the mission of a component within the past five years.  The trend spotted most often is a shift to create a “chapter-lite” model that reduces the load on the volunteers while still providing a forum for connecting.

Collectively, these point to a charge for change.

What have you seen that supports or disproves these observations?