How Associations and Chapters Can Build Mutually Beneficial Relationships
The relationship between an association and chapters is often tricky. On one hand, when there is a strong foundation of mutual respect, support, open communication and clear expectations, the relationship is likely to flourish. On the other, tension can sprout like weeds when support feels flimsy, communication seems one-way and expectations are not clear.

Developing a successful relationship between an association and its chapters (or between an association and its related state associations, components, affiliates, regional organizations, etc.) requires an ongoing, thoughtful and deliberate approach. If the relationship starts to show signs of stress or tension, it is likely that one or more of the following common challenges are present:
  1. A lack of transparent, two-way communication. Not tuning in to and acknowledging the point-of-view of chapters can often create adversaries instead of allies.
  2. Resource constraints. An association is normally guided by experienced board members and has a staff of paid professionals. Chapters are typically led by volunteers without the support of staff. Access to deep financial reserves, vendor partners and new technologies (e.g., website services, database management, etc.) also can be hard to come by for chapter leaders.
  3. Unclear expectations. When there is not a clear understanding of how the association will support its chapters (and vice versa), processes and systems are often duplicated, membership impact is likely to be diluted and frustration can quickly emerge.
The Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA) has historically experienced challenges with building relationships with its chapters, and the National Association Medical Staff Services (NAMSS) faced a similar scenario with its states associations. But, instead of accepting such challenges, both organizations chose to change their approaches to get to a better place. They shifted from autonomous styles to collaborative ones in which the association leverages its staff and resources to equip and enable the chapters/state associations for success. Some of the tactics used included opening the lines of communication, investing in leadership, providing direct access to the association’s board of directors and reducing the administrative and operational loads normally carried by volunteer-led chapter/state association teams.

APRA: Starting the Conversation with Chapter Leaders

In late 2011, APRA, which serves 2,100 professionals in prospect development (the strategic arm of fundraising operations in the nonprofit education and healthcare communities), hosted a meeting attended by its board of directors and key leaders representing 30 chapters across the United States and Canada.

It had been some time since the two sides met. Prior to that meeting, the association’s primary focus in supporting its chapters was providing tactical support such as helping with tax filings. In addition, APRA had launched a numbers of new strategic initiatives and chapter leaders felt they were not informed or a part of the development process.

“It was a tough meeting and a real eye opener,” explained Jennifer MacCormack, Ph.D., the current president of APRA. “The chapter leaders felt like the association was mandating a lot of things without their input. It was the defining moment that got us all to think carefully about how we could rebuild our relationship with the chapters.”

At the board’s direction in 2012, APRA staff worked quickly and partnered with the chapters to implement a robust program. The initiatives, which improved the relationship with the chapters, included:
  • Launching an annual survey of chapter leaders to determine strategic priorities and needs for the next 12 months.
  • Facilitating a chapter leader community, enabling chapter officers to meet quarterly to share best practices regarding how to drive recruitment and enhance the professional development of members.
  • Organizing bi-annual, face-to-face meetings with chapter leaders and APRA board members to discuss the association’s strategy and share ideas about how best to serve members.
  • Dedicating a half-day of programming at APRA’s annual conference to chapter development.
  • Starting a Chapter Mentor program, where chapter leaders are paired with APRA leaders for professional development and groomed for APRA board leadership.
“The feedback we are getting now is a 180-degree change from what we heard a few years ago,” MacCormack said. “It has not only opened up the conversation between APRA and the chapters, but it has also started peer-to-peer conversations between each of the chapters. We’ve opened up the conversation and it is starting to feel like we are one community. The chapters are stronger, and so is the national association.”

NAMSS: Establishing Clear Commitments for Mutual Support

NAMSS, which is devoted to the professional development of its more than 5,600 medical staff and credentialing services professionals, has 48 state associations that operate as independent entities—known as NAMSS affiliates—with their own state board of directors.

NAMSS itself started as an independent state association in California in 1971, and its board always maintained an interest in supporting other state associations. However, exactly what that support would include was never clear until 2011. Until that time, according to NAMSS President Bonnie Gutierrez, each state association often “did its own thing,” which sometimes caused duplication of the administrative and operational support that the national association was poised to provide.

“People on both sides were disappointed because they did not understand what the expectations of each other were,” Gutierrez said. “There were a lot of assumptions about what [the national association] would and would not do. And sometimes, commitments were not met.”

As a result, the NAMSS national board and staff partnered with volunteer leadership from the state associations to formalize the relationships with a written affiliate agreement. For each state association that signed the agreement, the national association agrees to guarantee certain benefits that include best practices for running meetings and events, website hosting, access to speaker resources, brand and promotional materials, and tools to cross-reference membership lists in order to enhance recruitment drives and bolster member retention.

Beyond such operational support, the affiliate agreement also includes a direct investment in professional development for state association leaders. Each year at the NAMSS State Leadership Conference, a two-day workshop held specifically for state leaders, participants receive training on leading volunteer-driven organizations and are groomed for larger roles potentially on NAMSS’ national committees and board.

Like APRA, NAMSS also is investing in ways to open the lines of communication between state associations and the NAMSS board, which now includes nine directors-at-large who serve as liaisons to the state associations and participate in local meetings.

“Our commitment has really been seen by the states as supportive. They reach out now and feel a responsibility to stay engaged,” Gutierrez said, noting the new initiatives have been a factor toward membership growing approximately 15 percent since 2011. “Operationally, both sides get it now because our roles are clear and are documented. Strategically, our directors-at-large come to the boardroom with first-hand knowledge of what our state associations need and how we can equip them for success.”

Proven Best Practices

For associations looking to improve their relationships with chapters, MacCormack and Gutierrez offered some simple suggestions to get started:
  • Start a conversation and be brave enough to face criticism. “Open conversation is necessary because (the chapter/state organization leaders) care and they want to be heard,” MacCormack said. Both she and Gutierrez advocate continuing the conversation with ongoing, face-to-face meetings and conference calls to discuss what is and what is not working.
  • Clarify roles and commitments as well as ensure there is mutual benefit for both sides. “If you’re providing clarity with each other, then you’re building trust,” Gutierrez noted.
  • Set realistic expectations. “Relationships like these are long-term. Both sides need to understand that not everything will be fixed overnight,” added MacCormack. “Getting started is what is most important. From there, momentum will build.”
Fostering positive relationships requires work and maintaining them is not always easy. But, for those boards that make the effort to improve and nurture their chapter relations, the reward is renewed trust and a sense of unity that can serve as a catalyst for recruiting new members, developing new leaders, launching new initiatives, exceeding expectations and much more.
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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