Tim Ebner is communications director and press secretary at the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, DC. He is a member of ASAE’s Communication Professionals Advisory Council and a former Associations Now senior editor.
When looking to grow globally, many associations tap the power of international chapters to pursue the mission worldwide by bringing staff and volunteers together at the local level. Here’s how three associations are deploying international chapters, at different stages of maturity, to build on business and membership opportunities abroad.
The Institute of Management Accountants reached an important milestone this year, surpassing 100,000 members due to increasingly strong international growth. A decade ago, 90 percent of IMA’s members resided in the United States, but today a majority—64 percent—live in other countries.
Jim Gurowka, CAE, IMA’s senior vice president of global business development, attributes the boom to an extensive network of increasingly active chapters in international markets where the accounting profession is on the rise.
“Our focus right now is on Southeast Asia. We have chapters in Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines,” he says. “We are really trying to grow what they do and [help them] be the voice of the profession in local areas.”
In the digital economy, the world is smaller and more interconnected than ever before, and IMA and other associations are developing chapters that can seize upon opportunities for expanded business and membership abroad.
While IMA has undertaken an aggressive international growth strategy, other organizations are just getting started. According to a 2017 ASAE Foundation report, Association Global Maturity, 40 percent of association leaders surveyed said they had no formal plans or only early-stage plans to expand internationally. Those that maintain an international presence fall into one of three categories:
And among those that have an international presence, only 7 percent said they have international members who join through local divisions, affiliates, or chapters. That’s a surprising finding for Gurowka, who says IMA’s international chapters are its “boots-on-the-ground” operation outside the U.S.
“I see chapters as an extension of IMA,” Gurowka says. “They help build a community within our profession, they facilitate local events, and ultimately, they help with member retention and acquisition.”
Associations exploring whether and how to establish an international presence need to consider a variety of factors, including which regions and countries have the most active members and how chapters might be structured, managed, and sustained. At the American College of Surgeons—where, currently, 40 percent of chapters are located outside North America—staff are studying those questions as they work to meet a goal of adding one or two new international chapters every year.
Brian Frankel, manager of international chapter services and special initiatives for ACS, decides where to go next.
“I start by analyzing member data and the current local population in terms of where we are concentrated,” he says. “Right now, we’re considering opening a new chapter in South Africa because we have almost 150 ACS fellows there.”
There are about 80,000 ACS members, and 10 percent reside outside the United States and Canada. For a new chapter to be formed, there must be at least 15 active ACS fellows in a country. Recent additions include Qatar, Kuwait, and Bangladesh.
Based on trends in member growth, Frankel is focusing on four regions for chapter development: Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia Pacific. Staff and local volunteers work together to host events, meetings, and other educational and professional development programming.
“Often, it’s your local volunteers who will be the most responsive and willing to help out,” Frankel says. “However, the onus is on me to make sure chapters are communicating and collaborating as frequently as possible.”
Potential barriers to chapter formation include language or cultural differences, local legal issues, and overly rigid requirements of the parent organization. While some associations might operate chapters as subsidiaries, new ACS chapters are created as independent organizations with separate finances, bylaws, and governance, and they get wide leeway to determine their own structure.
“Flexibility is key,” Frankel says. “Chapters do not have to provide us with articles of incorporation or prove that they can form a bank account. Sometimes those can be significant hurdles to overcome.”
Associations don’t necessarily need on-the-ground support to get an international chapter up and running, but they do need a realistic plan based on available resources. Frankel suggests that an organization aiming to launch chapters outside the U.S. would do well to start small.
“Keep things as simple as possible,” he says. “What I’ve found is that new chapters have a willingness to hit the ground running, but you can’t expect too much from them in the earliest stages.”
With almost 50 chapters outside the United States, IMA is entering a period of full-scale global growth. Its chapters operate under affiliation agreements, maintaining the IMA brand worldwide while allowing local chapters to reflect the culture and region, especially for conferences, meetings, and learning and professional development programming.
The key to success has been establishing a network of full-time staff spread across the world. “We have a community relations team—staff in Dubai and Europe and Singapore and China— who support our chapters on a consistent and global basis,” Gurowka says. This team “works to leverage resources effectively, so chapters succeed long term.”
Fully developed chapters have a few defining characteristics, including that they have “gone through iterations of board members,” Gurowka says, and that “they have high-profile local members at big organizations that want to put on recurring events and programming.” They also have a pool of engaged volunteers, robust leaders, and both a strategic plan and a succession plan to carry them into the future.
10% Percentage of the American College of Surgeons' 80,000 members who reside outside the United States or Canada
50 Approximate number of chapters the Institute of Management Accountants has outside the United States
30 Approximate number of years the Association for Corporate Growth has been in Europe
“Chapter development is very much an organic process,” Gurowka says. “They reach a point of sophistication and operate almost like a mini-association that works with us or as part of us, and they really do see themselves as the local voice.”
As regional chapters grow and mature, new needs arise. Recently, IMA restructured its association management system to collect and store member data in both English and simplified Chinese. The association also offers products and services in simplified Chinese, including a Chinese Learning Center and the Certified Management Accountant exam.
Even when a chapter has fully matured, it can still face challenges, such as declining membership, a drop in volunteers, or regulatory changes and market forces at play in the country or region. Sometimes, such challenges make it necessary to close offices or reduce a chapter presence.
For instance, IMA closed its Cairo office and reduced chapter activities in Egypt after the government passed a law restricting more than 47,000 nongovernmental organizations operating in the country. “We slowed down any activities that the chapter was doing because we didn’t want to run afoul of the law,” Gurowka says. “It caused us to rethink what we can and can’t do.”
Maintaining long-term global growth requires periodic assessments of chapter performance, says Leslie Whittet, CAE, vice president of chapter operations at the Association for Corporate Growth, which is embarking on a process to evaluate the viability of its European chapters.
ACG has been in Europe for more than 30 years. Chapters in some countries, like the United Kingdom, are continuing to grow, while those in other countries, like Austria, are so dormant as to be chapters in name only. Those shifts reflect changes in global markets: For example, London and Brussels are bigger hubs for private equity and mergers and acquisitions than Vienna is. Where changes in economic activity reduce the need for or interest in associations, chapters may have outlived their usefulness.
“In today’s world, we probably wouldn’t have all the chapters that we have, given the business that we’re in and how it’s evolved,” Whittet says.
To consider what changes may be needed, she’s using chapter data collected from a web platform that’s integrated into ACG’s association management system. “Having the right chapter management tool is critical whether you’re in Nebraska or Barcelona,” Whittet says. “You also need staff support to manage [chapters] because volunteers come and go, but staff, in theory, are the backbone of the organization.”
With accurate data and staff input, Whittet reviews chapter size, activities, and finances, pinpointing mature chapters that are either growing or declining. This clarity helps her to plan for the future.
Last year, the ACG board put together a European task force as part of its three-year strategic plan to reevaluate chapter performance in the region. In February 2019, it will deliver an internal audit that maps out a plan for future chapter expansions and consolidations.
“They’ll be making recommendations to our full board if chapters should stay or go,” Whittet says. “This audit will push us forward to determine where else we might go in Europe, and what resources we’ll need to achieve it.”