Virtual Chapters: Are they a viable alternative?

The jury is still out on this question. You see virtual isn’t a slam dunk. It doesn’t necessarily solve the connection issue. It still requires passionate volunteers, albeit fewer. It still must deliver value.

For NIGP, the Institute for Public Procurement, the vote is yes. For the National Association of Productivity & Organizing, the vote is maybe. For Alliance of Hazardous Materials Professionals, the vote is meh. For International Society of Performance Improvement, the vote is yes if you think of it as a hybrid. We shared their stories the webinar Virtual Chapters: Should We or Shouldn’t We.

The webinar came out of two workshops where we explored how and when virtual can work.  There were two aha’s in the research and design workshops:

(1) A successful virtual chapter must address 4 issues:

  • Waning volunteerism in chapters
  • Waning interest in local events
  • Time challenges to attend local events
  • Increasing demand for virtual education/networking – that addresses local issues


(2) A successful virtual chapter has to embrace its unique attribute: geography. The purpose is building local community and addressing state/local regulatory & legislative activity and other local factors. Bottom line, shared geography, not getting together F2F, is the primary delimiter of the virtual chapter.

What’s in a Name?

  • CHAPTER: group formed around geography (where) and traditionally providing F2F experience
  • SIGs (CoP, etc.): group formed around issue, interest or discipline and traditionally providing shared space for knowledge management, collaboration, often charged with “owning” and developing the content for that sector including planning in-person education; working community
  • ONLINE COMMUNITY: discussion group focused on discussing and sharing, a peer-to-peer “help desk”; grown into being the “home” for an association with groups forming around issue, interests, discipline, committees/volunteer groups (assn business)
  • VIRTUAL CHAPTER: alternate model for traditional. Virtual chapters allow associations to create a bridge between national and local programming (i.e. for those who have a geographic need, but for whom the existing local programming is inaccessible or inadequate).
How will we know it’s worth the effort?

Associations participating in the design workshops agreed on five metrics which are meaningful and measurable. We can’t know if the effort – and yes it takes effort – is producing an ROI unless we can measure outcomes. Who wants another underperforming chapter?

  • Engagement
  • Volunteer development
  • Member growth
  • Member retention
  • Advocacy


Downsides exist

As AHMP and NAPO pointed out, virtual chapters can have the challenges we encounter with traditional chapters. For both organizations, the virtual chapter is member-driven with limited staff involvement causing brand alignment and experience inconsistencies. A non-contingent membership model creates a quandary for national as prospective members opt into the virtual which offers a lower price point.  For NAPO, their virtual chapter receives the same benefits as traditional chapters allowing this chapter to offer access to member-only benefits at a lower chapter dues. Why? The virtual chapter has fewer expenses thanks to a virtual structure.

You have to invest in technology. You will need a collaboration platform for members to share information and resources, discuss issues, and ask questions. This investment must include training as you need to ensure that stakeholders involved are comfortable using the necessary technology.


So do upsides

For both AHMP and NAPO, their virtual chapters by some measures were amongst the strongest, most active of the chapters. For NAPO, the virtual chapter has been collaborating with brick & mortar chapters thus adding value to the chapter proposition. The virtual chapter opens its webinars and other virtual activities to other chapters.

NIGP virtual chapter for members in Hawaii and Alaska not only serves members in remote areas but is helping its on-the-ground chapter counterparts learn how to offer virtual add-ons – like video-conferencing – to extend their services.


Blended as the middle ground?

Rose Noxon, a volunteer leader with the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) suggests the real answer is a blended chapter. One that uses online or virtual space as the glue for a community that works on a locally relevant initiative. For ISPI, they started a virtual chapter to run a long-term (12-18 months) community service project in the Richmond VA area. Members primarily meet and work virtually meeting occasionally in person.

A hybrid chapter offers the best of both worlds – some in-person and some virtual activity. By having virtual options between in-person events, you can extend the membership experience.


Going in with eyes wide open!

The key take-aways from our workshops were that associations need to have their eyes wide open.

  1. Expect blurred lines between online community, special interest groups and virtual chapter. You need a clear purpose for each.
  2. Except a level of competition with brick & mortar chapters and national. AIHA anticipated this and so they made the virtual chapter available only to members who reside in an unserved area.
  3. Much like online community, your virtual chapter will require HQ support.