A Tale of Three Chapters

Written by Deborah Rodney on April 9, 2018

If your organization is comprised of multiple chapters, it’s a good bet that some are more successful than others. There can be many reasons certain chapters struggle while others soar.

As a membership expert who has helped turn around numerous problem chapters, I’ll share three different approaches that were effective.

In the first two examples, the issues were obvious. The difference in the turnaround process was how they were handled. In the third, the problems were not readily apparent so they had to be identified before we could address them.

1. Re-invention and Re-branding

The mid-town chapter of a professional organization was struggling from stagnation and lack of diversity. The leader who started the chapter originally had a vision, but over time he got busy, became disengaged, and the members started dropping out. The group had been curated so carefully that all the members were similar in age, gender, ethnicity and seniority level. Because it was so homogenous, women, minorities and younger people didn’t want to join. And due to the geography of the meeting location, it attracted prospective members from the same demographic pool. The chapter developed a reputation for being clique-y, unwelcoming and closed off.

The turnaround called for a dramatic rebranding.

The first order of business was replacing the leader with a younger, more dynamic individual, and appointing a new Executive Board. Three of the members were from the “old” group, but we also populated the Board with three new demographically diverse members who had the ability to recruit others like themselves. They were offered a year of free membership in exchange for helping to rebuild the group.

Secondly, we moved the location, changed the meeting date, and changed the group’s name. While the original chapter wasn’t completely disbanded, it was essentially reinvented and given a new life. To attract new blood, it was treated like a brand new group, and new members became “charter members”.

The rebranding and repopulating process took about 8 months and within a year the revitalized chapter was thriving. Two of the three members who were given free memberships stayed on and paid the dues.

2. Strategic Planning as a Collaborative Effort

From the outside, this chapter seemed to have plenty of collegiality and camaraderie. At meetings, certain members were always poking fun at one another and making “in-jokes”. While the group’s inner circle enjoyed the vibe, other members and first-time visitors found it off-putting and even objectionable. Complaints began getting back to the leader, who had been the driving force in the group’s culture.

To his credit, the leader recognized that he was a big part of the problem, and together we decided he would step down and turn the group over to his vice-president.

In a brave move, he announced his resignation in a dramatic and surprising fashion by passing the torch at the next meeting. The new leader immediately initiated a candid and open discussion about the group’s culture, direction and need for change. Everyone got a chance to speak, complain, and share input.

Every comment and suggestion was written on a white board. The discussion became a spontaneous strategic planning session. A couple of members led the group through the exercise of defining chapter goals, creating a road map for success, setting milestones and expectations, and outlining each member’s roles and responsibilities.

The group effort insured everyone’s buy-in. Committees were created, and every single member agreed to be part of one or more. Over the next several meetings they brainstormed tactics for bringing in and onboarding new members, organizing different events, and maintaining the momentum.

This process and collaboration resulted in the members really bonding in a way that they couldn’t have imagined before, and they became a much more cohesive chapter. There was no longer any need for forced collegiality—now the camaraderie was real. When prospective members visited the chapter, they were eager to join. Their successful process became a model for the organization.

3. Membership Assessment – getting inside the minds of members

One of three chapters in a large geographic region was floundering, and the Regional Director didn’t know why. Although the troubled chapter served the largest pool of prospective members, it was the smallest and had the most difficulty growing.

The Regional Director and the CEO had made assumptions about what the issues might be, but they weren’t really sure. So when a key sponsor threatened to pull out, they were motivated to get to the root of the problem.

I suggested a telephone survey to talk directly with members and sponsors, ask them what was working, what wasn’t working, and what they thought the organization could do to serve them better. One objective was to discover the gaps between how the organization perceived their value proposition and how the members viewed it. Upon learning that, we’d be able to develop new messaging and a more compelling way to communicate member benefits for marketing.

A second, less obvious objective was to communicate to members that their opinions mattered, and that the organization cared about them. This engagement would ultimately pave the way for a membership drive.

Our research uncovered some interesting and unexpected results: Although the members loved the monthly presentations on relevant industry topics, what they really craved was greater interactivity and opportunities to meet and network with one another. They wanted to share and develop connections, but they perceived the chapter to be more event and information focused than relationship-focused.

Once we knew what was missing we knew what had to be done. Based on suggestions that came directly from the member interviews, we developed programs and initiatives to deliver more of what they were looking for.

Six months later the Regional Director reported that they had the best turnout of any previous meeting and had added 12 new members, surpassing their goal of 10.

These stories illustrate different approaches to rebuilding, rebranding or reinventing a problem chapter. Obviously, the best approach to accomplishing a turnaround is revealed by analyzing and understanding the specific issues underlying the problems.

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