Chapters: Squandered Opportunities

What would you think of a business that claims it is “customer-centric” but ignores and marginalizes its best customers: those who have been loyal the longest, spend the most money on its products, are its greatest champions and have such deep stake in its success that they volunteer their time to help it?  You probably would not give this business many chances for survival in this competitive environment. To my surprise, when a few associations asked my help with their chapters, I found out that this is exactly what associations are doing with their chapters, volunteers and members in general.

On the surface, everyone can recite the chapters’ benefits:   hard-working, committed volunteers; “important” to the association and its members; creating member value, etc.  Yet the subtext in most conversations I had with executives was clear.  Chapters are:

  • Unruly or out of control and a burden to manage

  • Marginal, “play” activities, usually not worthy of the CEO’s time to engage with them  

  • Independent fiefdoms, caring only for individual agendas rather than the association and its members

  • Petulant, angry and demanding, without  appreciation for the association’s challenges

  • Often  competitors rather than supporters of the association

  • A drain on resources;  uncooperative and antagonistic.

Not to be outdone, the chapter leaders I interviewed had their own choice descriptions of their association as:

  • Lacking respect for them

  • Seeing them as burdens

  • Unappreciative of their hard work

  • Unsupportive! 

  • Self-serving:  “they just use us to get revenue”   

There is truth to many of these complaints on both sides.  Yet there is no track for convergence.  Chapter leaders I have interviewed are doing their best to interpret vague terms such as, "engage members locally,"  "represent the association" and "benefit the profession" into specific roles and activities.   Many leaders of new chapters have reported that, when asking for guidance about their roles and chapters’ mission, association staff charged with chapter management refers them to by-laws and other operational guidebooks.  As a result, each chapter tends to have a different "take" of what they are supposed to do and vastly different metrics for evaluating their performance. For the most part, associations fail to provide strategic leadership or integration of chapters into the association’s core business in part because they are, themselves, siloed and fragmented; and set up to deal in commodities rather than relationships and intangibles –both of which are the currency for growth in the knowledge economy.

Ironically, both chapters and associations are locked into parallel paths with no possibility of convergence. They seem resigned to unproductive parent-child roles with one stuck to the position of “give me more because I deserve it and don’t tie me down to rules;” and  the other to: “do as I say because I say it and don’t bother the adults.”  Instead, of identifying and leveraging chapters’ value, most associations’ solution to the “problem” is to control and restrain them.  And instead of re-defining their roles on the basis of a partnership with the association, chapters often become rebellious children, demanding more appreciation, freedom and resources on unrealistic terms. 

Both parties vaguely know that chapters are “good” for members and very “important” for the association but they cannot put their finger on how to measure such value and convert it into tangible outcome such as retention numbers, level of member satisfaction, key corporate relationships etc.  As a result they both focus on formal educational programs and activities rather than on the greater value of intangible, raw assets that can be tapped, re-configured, integrated and  converted into tangible outcomes. 

Consider the value currently left on the table and the myriads opportunities for value conversions that are lost, for exampler:

  • Community as the basis of business and membership models:

As Peggy Hoffman wrote a while ago:   “Chapters are simply communities built around geography (rather the other three drivers of issue, interest and discipline) to establish community connections at the local level. Chapters allow members to connect across the street without having to reach up through the main office to find a connection. Why are we successful? Well it's because we see membership as not dues-paying customers but as a living community.”   

Customer and member communities are being used as the basis of business models, hubs for innovation and product development by many companies across industries from Zillow to product manufacturers and retailers, university research centers and research-based consulting firms, as part of a larger shift from transactional to relationship-based models. Community-building and commercial interests-- human relationships and business-- needn’t be either or propositions. On the contrary it is by creating value that encompasses the customer as a whole person, rather than at the moment of transaction, that a great deal of wealth and innovation has been created in the knowledge economy.  Product manufacturers are adding services and online retailers like Amazon and e-Bay have applied principles of community to transform consumers’ buying experiences and revolutionize their industries.  

Member-driven communities like chapters can be used as knowledge and demonstration laboratories for associations to re-learn how to connect to members as human beings, through relationships rather than transactions.  By integrating member experiences through chapters with other types of member experiences, an association can develop cohesive and multi-dimensional member experiences that build on each other and can be coordinated to drive retention and move members from low to higher tiers of participation.  

  • Relationships:  Deep and varied relationships with corporations –many of which the association covets and may have been pursuing unsuccessfully through their corporate office;  universities, government entities, local and regional partners and influencers.

  •   Content: learning innovations that experienced member consultants have developed, used and experimented with when teaching chapter-based programs, that could be adopted and expanded by the association to re-energize its own offerings; specialized expertise.
  • Workforce development and industry support: thousands of hours of valuable mentorships of potential and new entrants to a profession or industry that represent enormous contributions to workforce development.  If informal, ad hoc efforts of dedicated and experienced volunteers, passionate about strengthening their profession, were identified, coordinated, supported and aligned with strategic educational approaches; strategic and financial objectives, they could yield a range of outcomes from membership-based consortia of companies,  to innovative services for corporate members, custom training, regional initiatives that catalyze community partnerships,  research-based subscriptions, new data etc. 

  • On-going streams of market and member intelligence from specific regions that, if tapped and acted upon, would make a dramatic difference to the association’s ability to keep its finger on the pulse of its members and create products and services that truly resonate with them.

So how often do these intimate member experiences,  new member prospects, intellectual capital, market intelligence or valuable industry and government relationships generated by chapters feed directly into associations’ efforts at recruiting corporate members, developing products and services, engaging and retaining members, understanding the market , innovating and growing?  Rarely if ever!   In my experience all these represent a huge reservoir of value left on the table as associations have lacked insights for identifying them and mechanisms for integrating them with their core business and converting them into outcomes. At an age of networks within networks and dispersed, rather than top-down, knowledge  and value-creation, chapters could morph into an association’s distribution, learning and development partners throughout the world and a force of innovation helping it shift from top down bureaucracies to networked organizations, and giving them capabilities for serving each member individually and holistically.   


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