Restructuring for the Future
Chapters and affiliates are vital for the success of many associations. But when they are not operating efficiently, it is essential to identify the problems and create solutions. One organization that recently took on the task of restructuring its chapters is the Clinical Laboratory Management Association (CLMA). In 2017, association leaders came up with a breakthrough solution that is already reaping benefits. More importantly, it has set the association on a positive course for the future. Here’s how the association restructured for the future and what other associations can learn from its efforts.

Model Not Sustainable
For CLMA, the chapter structure has presented challenges for years, says Abigail Trebels, executive director of CLMA. There had been problems with the existing chapter model and the board realized that the situation wasn’t going to be sustainable unless issues were addressed. Chapters were functioning largely independently. There was little alignment with the national organization and great uncertainty about the roles of the chapters compared to the role of headquarters. The chapters were frustrated because they wanted support from the national organization that they weren’t getting, and the national organization was frustrated because it felt like the chapters were competing against it.  “The local experience of being a member of a chapter is one of the benefits that we as the national organization wanted to offer,” says Trebels. “But there was no linkage between how the chapters were offering these experiences. We had no influence over the consistency of those experiences for our members and we had members complain about their local experience. We needed to provide a consistent member experience.”

In 2017, the board decided to make this issue a priority and engaged a consultant who brought resources and guidance to help find the best solution. The stated goals were to minimize the administrative and operational burden for volunteer chapter leaders, provide more resources for the chapters, create better alignment between chapters and the national organization, and maximize the value of membership.

Guiding Principles
First, CLMA created guiding principles that detail the specific roles of the chapters and the national organization in this symbiotic relationship. To do this, the association conducted a survey to understand the pain points for chapters, and how to better serve their needs. Next, CLMA assembled a task force comprised of members (with and without chapter experience) and board members. The task force met face-to-face to review survey results and formulate solutions. The survey showed that chapter leaders felt they had to recruit their own members and develop their own events, which they couldn’t do adequately due to limited resources. (In fact, the chapters were unaware that CLMA could handle those tasks for them.) The survey also showed that there was a need to reduce the stress of running a chapter and provide greater alignment with CLMA.  

To address these issues, CLMA created a chapter mission statement that defined chapter roles. Those included fostering education, networking, and a sense of belonging at the local level. These roles and expectations were laid out in an affiliation agreement that also outlined the services and benefits provided by the national organization. Specifically, the agreement instituted a standard dues structure across all 35 chapters with CLMA handling all dues and finances. The national organization is also responsible for member recruiting, administrative support, marketing and technology services (e.g., website maintenance), and more. With all education offered by the chapters branded as CLMA education, CLMA provides educational resources and support, access to its speaker database, and pre-packaged and on-demand education for chapters to use. “We realized we needed to do better at making all of these resources available to chapters so that they are easily utilized,” says Trebels.

Next, CLMA developed a communications plan involving webinars, newsletters, emails, and calls with each chapter to communicate these guidelines. Nearly all of the 35 chapters signed the affiliate agreement and have been appreciative of the changes.

Lessons Learned  
Since the start of 2018 — just one year since the board made resolving the issue a priority — CLMA membership has increased by about 400 new members, bringing the total to 1,800. That’s a 22 percent increase, which Trebels attributes to the chapter restructuring initiative. CLMA also has improved its relationships with the chapters and has seen an increased level of engagement from chapter leaders. Through this process, CLMA has learned some valuable lessons, and has the following recommendations for others managing this type of change.
  • Consider hiring a consultant or outside expert to facilitate discussions at the board level.
  • Conduct surveys or use data and research to determine why changes are necessary.
  • Appoint a task force or working groups to spearhead the initiative.
  • Get the right people at the table. Include chapter leaders as well as staff, board members, consultants, volunteers, members, and other key individuals. This will help ensure buy in.
  • Set goals and objectives for the plan, and make sure they are aligned with the organization’s mission.
  • Ensure solutions are mutually beneficial, serving the needs of the chapters as well as the national organization.
  • Be as transparent as possible with the chapters during the process.
  • Have a communication plan in place. Frequent and consistent communications via webinars, newsletters, meetings, and personal phone calls are crucial to getting buy in.
  • Ensure the chapters know they are valued and are critical to the success of the organization.
  • Understand that this is a long-term process. Whether you roll it out in stages or all at once, know that it will take multiple years and that tweaks and ongoing changes will be necessary.
For CLMA, the restructuring remains a work in progress, says Trebels. In late 2018, the organization conducted a follow-up survey. Overall, the feedback was very positive, but the survey did reveal a need for some additional changes. CLMA assembled a new task force comprised of board members to focus on identifying resources the chapters still need to be successful. In addition, CLMA is developing an online community to facilitate learning and best practice sharing among chapters, and it will expand on its “event-within-an-event” for chapters at its annual meeting, which involves creating a reception to help chapters network and recruit new members. Future initiatives include considering different types of chapter membership options and restructuring the CLMA governance structure to better serve the chapters.

Ultimately, it’s about putting the association on a path of future growth with the chapters playing an important role. “Through working together,” says Trebels, “we have moved from frustration to appreciation. Our chapters are valuable to CLMA and they see the value that we bring to them.”
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