Dresden Farrand, CAE
Dresden Farrand, CAE, is vice president of chapter development at Independent Electrical Contractors.
Does your association have a strategic partnership with chapters, or is the relationship more a marriage of convenience? To build trust and better align on strategic planning, one association created a chapter advisory board.
Too many associations and components go about their business without much thought about their relationship, unless they're complaining about the other's shortcomings. Some even fall into the "us vs. them" mindset—a deadly trap of dysfunction and distrust. In the process, national and chapter leaders lose opportunities to work together to achieve mutually beneficial goals.
A few years ago, national educational technology association with a 48 percent retention rate and a strained relationship with chapter leaders. Our staff knew that we had to repair the relationship by rebuilding trust and two-way communication, so that chapters would buy in to strategic goals.
To do that, we had to understand what was really going on with components. I learned about chapter concerns and ideas in focus groups with board directors and members, as well as through polls and monthly conversations with chapter leaders.
But the best thing we did was to establish a chapter advisory board. Candidates for the advisory board are nominated and voted on by the association's board of directors; volunteers who sit on chapter boards have final approval. The advisory board's eight members meet monthly either in person or via web conferencing.
If you want chapter leaders to invest in your strategic plan, you have to give them a voice. They want to be heard.
The advisory board supports and facilitates the relationship between the national organization and its chapters in a variety of ways:
Strategic planning. The chapter advisory board plays a critical role in strategic planning for both the association and its chapters. Early in the planning process, the board chair asks chapters for their input on strategic planning for the coming years. If you want chapter leaders to invest in your strategic plan, you have to give them a voice. They want to be heard.
Every year, the advisory board reviews the chapters' strategic plans to make sure that they're aligned and provides feedback about anything that needs adjusting. The guidance depends on the chapter's maturity level. For a younger chapter, the board focuses on operational items like managing the budget. For more mature chapters, it looks at strategic opportunities and planning.
Assessment. Next, I developed a scorecard for each chapter—an assessment tool for benchmarking its goals and grading its health and sustainability. The advisory board reviews the scorecards monthly and recommends corrective action if components are not meeting all of the requirements. Chapters are receptive to these peer-to-peer reviews because they are not staff-imposed requests.
Policy enforcement and conflict resolution. The advisory board also oversees and reviews chapter agreements and policies. If a conflict or challenge to a chapter policy arises, the issue is brought to the attention of the advisory board to be addressed during one of its monthly meetings.
Large chapters tend to carry more weight and benefit from favoritism at the national level, but a neutral chapter advisory board helps to level the playing field and maintain a consistency in responses to chapters regardless of their size.
With a chapter advisory board, even the thorniest issues have a forum for discussion and action. For example, associations and their components often compete for the same sponsorship revenue. If a sponsor wants to split its investment in the organization between national and chapters, who determines an equitable split? At the Independent Electrical Contractors, where I work now, the advisory board makes decisions about allocating sponsorship funding. They also step in to develop and enforce policies in other contentious areas, like event revenue shares and website branding.
This new approach to component relationships created a positive buzz around chapter networks. The older, less trusting chapters saw what was going on with newer, more cooperative chapters and noted how they were quickly growing and increasing revenue. The more reluctant chapters became more willing to work with us.
This new strategic partnership has produced tangible results: 10 years ago, the association had 12 chapters; today it has 27 chapters. And member retention grew from 48 percent to 81 percent in the same period.