I read an article recently - Do Chapters Strengthen or Weaken an Association’s Membership? In it, the author offers statistics indicating that associations without chapters have higher member recruitment and retention rates than associations without them. That got me to thinking.
At the core, it's all about the value proposition. If both chapter and parent don't offer equal and/or unique value, perceived membership value is diminished. This is especially true in federated membership associations where membership in one requires or automatically includes membership in the other. In those cases, membership's appeal is no stronger than the weakest link in the value chain. People are far less likely in recent years to pay dues to multiple entities unless they are convinced all of them are worth it. And forcing membership in chapters as a means of preserving chapters for their own sake is a terrible strategy. The opposite is also true. If the member sees value in the chapter and low value in the parent, there is a growing disincentive, even resentment over forced membership in both. Bottom line...each should do for the members what the other can't do as effectively. And each must be able to stand on its own value. Anything less is serious jeopardy.
Forced membership is sadly too often the strategy of choice because it is easier than ensuring value at multiple levels. And it is a two edged sword. National or parent organizations can be just as big a drag on chapters as the reverse situation. Either way the member is left carrying the water for an organizational unit that is failing to deliver what the member considers of value. That situation was more sustainable in days past when people's loyalties were stronger and pocketbooks deeper. It is a much harder sell now, and probably won't get any easier over time.
In required joint membership associations, the dues+service fee factor looms even larger. People find it more difficult each year to justify paying multiple dues to multiple units, and then additional fees for services on top of that. Unless the association's services are one of a kind, people can simply go elsewhere, pay a fee only for services they want, and keep all that dues money in their pockets. Ouch. And doesn't that up the anti on the value proposition!
From an organizational view, collaborative existence for nationals and chapters has always been a key association strategy. But for the general membership it’s not about the organizational units, it’s about them - the members. There's a growing sense in the rank and file that it’s time to stop wasting manpower and dollars on redundancy and duplication; a growing impatience with dual administrative hierarchies, duplicative and even competitive programming, and a desire for pooling/partnering equally or at least more equitably for better MEMBER (not necessarily organizational unit) outcomes. Where the strategic thinking has traditionally been about organizational unit success, pulling that off is a bit like Sisyphus’ rock-up-the-mountain trick.
Having facilitated dozens of strategic assessments of chapters, I'm dismayed that we often have the wrong people on the bus, navigating in the wrong direction. The goal ought not to be helping chapters (or the national), but serving members. What do members need/want, how do they want to access it and what kinds of organizational units would be the BEST (implies member preferred) ways to deliver it? When we've decided that, which of our current organizational units do we need to fundamentally change? Which ones should we abandon completely and how do we fill the gap when they go (if they indeed leave any gap that matters to the general membership)? A room full of people with the goal of shoring up an existing organizational unit will do a very poor job of that.