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Associations Now

Successful Chapter-National Relationships

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, November 2009 Small scale

By: David Feldner, CAE

Summary: How to have influence at the national level when you are a small-staff chapter.

If you're managing an association that is a chapter to a national organization like I am, you understand the additional challenges of working with what I like to call "the mothership." Odds are that your chapter has significantly fewer staff members and available resources than the national organization, which could affect the services you provide to your local members. For your chapter to be great, you must understand your relationship with national and make strides toward working together to help meet the goals of both organizations.

As a small-staff organization, my chapter does not have the staff and resources to provide everything that our national organization (the National Association of the Remodeling Industry) can provide on a larger level. While it's easy to communicate to your local members and prospects the benefits of local membership, do you know all of the available benefits the national organization provides to your members? If you talk to prospective members about both the chapter and national benefits, you will likely have a more convincing and compelling argument. In turn, these prospects may be more likely to join.

For all you chapters out there with a small staff, don't underestimate the influence you can have at the national level.

However, the national organization should not only offer additional benefits to your local members; it should also offer the necessary resources to help you run your local association. Whether you are looking for an insurance program, educational opportunities, or sample policies for your board to adopt, your national organization should be the resource to provide that information to you or direct you to another chapter executive who has that information. The national organization also should connect you with strategic partners and major sponsors who could have an interest in building a relationship with your local association. Having these resources come from the national organization to the chapter level helps the chapter grow, which helps the federation expand as well.

Another thing to keep in mind when working together is that members can easily become confused by the communications coming from your chapter and national. For example, your chapter may have a policy to electronically communicate to your members weekly, while the national organization sends emails to your members twice a week. It's important to have a relationship with the communication staff in the national office so that you know in advance when and what they are sending to your local members. Also, when you do communicate with members, be clear about whether it is a national or chapter initiative. Otherwise, members may get confused, making the communication counterproductive.

And remember, as with any relationship, disagreements are bound to happen. Perhaps local leadership does not like a decision national makes because of the potential impact it will have on chapter members. In most cases, these disagreements can be avoided if leaders from your local association are actively engaged with the national organization, developing and voting on these measures. Just as you encourage your members to participate on chapter committees, you also should encourage your elected leaders to participate on committees at the national level. For new leaders of your chapter, you should include a copy of the national strategic plan in their board orientation so they are aware of the direction both the national organization and chapter are taking. While there may be some items in both plans that are specific to national or local efforts, it's important that your new and current board members understand the goals of the national organization and how they affect the local association.

Finally, for all you chapters out there with a small staff, don't underestimate the influence you can have at the national level. We all know that our volunteer leaders are busy running their businesses, working in their professions, or managing their practices. As nonprofit association executives representing small-staff associations, we are charged with the day-to-day management of our chapters and are constantly finding new ways to make our associations run more efficiently and provide valuable services to our members. Bringing your skills and experiences to the national office can help result in more knowledge-based decisions that will benefit your chapter. Who knows where your small-staff chapter will go if you work with national?

David Feldner, CAE, is the executive director of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry Milwaukee Chapter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Email:

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