Will Chapters Be Relevant in 2021?

Originally posted December 4, 2020, on Event Garde.

For many of us working in component (chapter) relations, there are days when our answer is a resounding yes, and others where it’s more of a whispered maybe. The fact is that the role of components (e.g., geographic groups chartered or affiliated) is changing which in turn impacts the answer for each association. For some, this evolving role becomes an asset while for others it is a signal of dwindling importance.

One of the biggest shifts is tied to the way our members are connecting with us for learning and knowledge sharing. Virtual has come of age, hastening the blurring of geographic lines which have been a limiting frame around chapters. Notice we say hasten. For a number of years, we’ve been studying the changing boundaries for chapters. Consider the shift to mega-regions or Metropolitan Statistical Regions. These conglomerations of metro areas bound together through business drive our local businesses to reach further and cross over traditional chapter boundaries. Case in point is the Boston-Washington corridor.

In the throes of the pandemic, many components running programs actively sought attendance across chapter lines. Meanwhile, national offices launched regional programming.

Pre-pandemic associations tapped their components for four key roles: member engagement, leadership development, member recruitment and professional development delivery.  In 2019, member engagement rose to the top for the first time.

Enter 2020. The role of the chapter sharpened in focus around local member engagement. We relied on our local groups for advocacy, problem-solving and community engagement. Over and over, we heard that while virtual opened opportunities for members, it doesn’t replace face-to-face and what little did occur happened largely at the local level. We saw community service, advocacy work and smaller gatherings for social/networking like golf tournaments and local board meetings.

So, what about 2021? We’ve convened several conversations with component professionals on the outlook for chapters as well as lessons learned. We have also pondered the calls for action we must take if chapters are part of our strategy to assure success. All in all, we do see six opportunities for component strategies for most associations though in 2021.

  1. Local remains critical. We still need members locally on advocacy and locally driven public policy, problem-solving (e.g., getting PPE in the hands of members), and community engagement.  And for many associations, there are local issues or geographic specific topics that are best offered through local groups. Perhaps most importantly, components help foster real-time, in-person relationships based on more than a shared occupation, industry or cause. Our members also have a geographic identity which provides context to our relationships and a perception of closeness which can’t be fully emulated by Zoom.
  2. Virtual does not replace F2F. Virtual offers us an option that is viable, reaching more members, and yet won’t replace face-to-face. In 2021, most predictions are for a slow at best return to in-person conferences and large meetings. New York Times predicts the threshold for what requires travel, and the time, cost and fatigue it brings, will rise.  Many meeting planning pros are pointing to greater use of hybrid meetings opening the door for engaging chapters in the planning and hosting of in-person options.
  3. Chapters extend primary association’s bandwidth for programming, member service and volunteer development. Just look at the number who sourced PPE for members like the AGC Texo Chapter or launched information campaigns for the industry like NACE Maine Chapter #PostponeDon’tCancel. Chapters can act faster and more directly for members. They can develop fresh content. And, they are able to pilot programs for the national organization to replicate. In many ways, the success in 2020 for these groups is tied to the fact that chapters are in a position to pivot more readily. We can tap into that agility with the right support and permissions – and perhaps financial resources.
  4. Answering the DEI imperative. For an association looking to fully embrace diversity, equity and inclusion, there is likely a strong point for a local network. Chapters can nurture conversation at the local level in a way that supports national/global conversation, especially given that many ethnic groups tend to congregate geographically creating pockets of like individuals. Chapters can play an essential role in delivering in-person or virtual education. Chapters often offer an accessible pathway for younger and diverse members to engage in the work of the association.
  5. Budget-friendly. Many industries and professions caught in a tight financial squeeze will appreciate access to education and events at affordable pricing – something chapters have long provided. Perhaps in 2021, this will be your association’s way to keep members connected.
  6. Door is open to change structures.  The pandemic has untethered our systems forcing us to rethink everything. It’s like applying liquid wrench to a rusty bolt (chapters) that had been stuck in place and now can move. At the same time, the pandemic provides cover for radical change and a greater acceptance of the need for change. All this provides associations a door to innovating their chapter structures and how they support and relate to their geographic components.


Generally, for associations with an agenda that requires ongoing active local engagement, a vibrant local network will be strategically important. Likewise, for associations representing a constituency either working at the community level (think health care, local resources, local business) or with limited access to or likelihood of business travel, a local network will be strategically important.  Geographic components become less important for associations if much of the work is across disciplines or issues in which bringing in a cross-section of voices is the richer strategy or where the education is less connected to where and more aligned with what, how and when.

To fully answer the question, will chapters be relevant for your association in 2021, one needs to look at your strategic plan and the nature of your membership and ask is local critical and, if so, for what purpose. For many, there will be a relevance.