Connecting the Coasts
By: Summer Faust
It takes about three hours to get to New York City from Washington, DC, by train. A flight to Atlanta from DC? About an hour and a half. But traveling from DC to Los Angeles? At least five hours, if you fly nonstop. For organizations headquartered in DC, it's not as time consuming for members to travel up and down the East Coast, but your West Coast members might feel jetlagged. What is the best way to make your long-distance members feel connected to your greater Washington-based organization?
Chapter Freedom Creates Affinity
"When it comes to the member-service side, we're increasingly recognizing that the state and local [activities] are really the touch point for the member, and that is where the member most often receives products and services," says Carolyn Lanham, CAE, senior director, executive office operations at the American Institute of Architects in Washington, DC. AIA has its own set of regions and chapters that facilitate the relationship between a member and the national organization, with 23 percent of its 80,000 members on the West Coast. The independent chapters create much of their own programming and events, and AIA recently implemented a communication network to facilitate chapter-to-chapter and chapter-to-national contact.
Independence for chapters is important to members, says Lanham, and giving them leeway to create their own products and services can lead to better member service and a stronger connection to the national organization. Plus, allowing West Coast chapters to generate programming that meets their needs can result in the national adoption of a successful local program.
Tina Myers, CAE, vice president, membership and chapter development at the Society for Marketing Professional Services in Alexandria, Virginia, agrees that less control is better when it comes to chapter engagement, and some of that freedom means trusting members.
"The programs that [chapters] put on are put on by them entirely," says Myers. "Sometimes they ask us for information about a speaker or get some ideas about what other chapters are doing that are successful," but Myers says chapters are most in tune with local members' needs and, without much interference from national, can use that knowledge to create the best engagement opportunities.
Offer Local Networking
The chapter model isn't the only way to connect to long-distance members. For most of your members beyond the Beltway, offering formal or informal in-person meetings reminds them of their ties to your association.
"Survey and know your membership and determine how they really want to be connected to you."
San Francisco resident Angel Alvarez-Mapp, creative editor of California Freemason magazine, is a member and board member of Association Media & Publishing, headquartered in McLean, Virginia. AM&P does not have chapters, but five percent of the small-staff organization's members are on the West Coast. Alvarez-Mapp, who has been active in AM&P for the past five years, says that while he and his colleagues take advantage of online content as much as possible, in-person networking should still be a priority for reaching West Coast members.
"If you know you have a large pocket of members in San Francisco, for instance … then maybe you should plan something—and it doesn't have to be too crazy—maybe just a happy hour where members get to interact with each other and make that connection," says Alvarez-Mapp.
Do Your Research
To start local events, organizations like AM&P often need a member who will take the lead on organizing or hosting events in the absence of a staff member. Alvarez-Mapp is working with Amy Lestition, CAE, executive director of AM&P, to create a presence on the West Coast. AM&P is still in the early stages of this process, starting with a survey to members and nonmembers in California to find out what kind of educational opportunities they would be most interested in.
"You need to make sure that you are in sync with your membership and understand what their needs are and how they want them to be delivered," Myers says. "Obviously a lot of it goes back to research, research, research. Survey and know your membership and determine how they really want to be connected to you."
This research should also include information on the lifestyle differences between regions and even distance between members. "One thing that we found between DC and in Chicago is that in Chicago they don't really commute in the middle of the day, so that model of the ‘lunch and learn' wouldn't work in Chicago, and it may not work in California either," says Lestition.
Alvarez-Mapp says there is a misconception about distance on the West Coast from East Coast counterparts. It's uncommon for Californians to take a train, hop on a bus, or commit to a long car ride just for a lunch event in another major city. "There's about 400 miles between me and Los Angeles. If we have events here, the Los Angeles people are still going to feel left out," says Alvarez-Mapp. "In talking to people [in DC], people will say ‘Oh, we have offices in San Diego!' That's another 100 miles south of L.A., so now you're talking about 500 miles away from me. That's a flight!"
When you hold your big meeting on the East Coast, you're not just convincing members to make a cross-country trek: You're asking them to justify the expense—both time and money—to their bosses. Helping your members endorse your event through justification kits or communication can go a long way in securing their attendance.
Post-conference materials can be especially relevant for your West Coast contingent. Alvarez-Mapp is the only staffer from his organization who has an opportunity to attend the AM&P Annual Meeting held in DC each year, so the pressure is on to learn as much as possible and report back to his team. He says that AM&P presenters' slides and extra online content means he can easily share information from the meeting with colleagues who had to stay behind.
Even if you're still looking for a West Coast event advocate, you can provide specialized content directed toward West Coast members with online engagement tools. "Any way that you can take advantage of technology tools—webinars, GoToMeeting—do it. Make it inexpensive for them, do a conference call, virtual meetings; but make sure that you're out there and make sure that you really do understand how your membership operates," Myers says.
Or, Myers says, find a sister organization and build a rapport with it. Partnerships can be a substitute for a large organizational presence and may even be a resource to find those members who want to become a champion for your organization's West Coast presence.
Summer Faust is project editor at ASAE. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org