(Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash)

Ask Peggy Hoffman and Peter Houstle what kind of reaction they get when they start asking about whether association chapters are still relevant, and they both start laughing. 

“There are a lot of people who are intimidated by that question,” Houstle said. “Sometimes, I wonder if there are people who don’t want to do (the research) because they might not like the answer.” 

The pair, who founded Mariner Management and Marketing, released their 2019 Chapter Benchmarking Report this fall with Kevin Whorton of Whorton Management. (BillHighway signed on as a sponsor, as well.) The report, which marks an update from a version produced in 2016, digs into what data is available on association chapters and asks some difficult questions, like the one about whether having them is worth the effort at all. 

And while that, Hoffman and Houstle said, was a tough question for some, it doesn’t make it any less valuable to investigate. 

“Benchmarking tends to be a way, in some sense, (to ask), ‘how do we compare to everyone else?’” Houstle said. “What we really learn through the benchmarking process and trying to address the ROI valuation matrix is the question of, ‘OK, so, I’m doing it like everyone else is doing. But why am I doing this? Why am I allocating resources to this? What difference does it make to the member value proposition or moving the mission?’”

Association chapters remain one of the understudied areas of the industry, Hoffman and Houstle said, likely because the structure of each is so complicated and specific to the organization itself. And people in the organizations themselves can tend to be incredibly protective of chapters. 

“When you’re sitting with members on a committee or a council that’s being engaged in this conversation, they are very protective,” Hoffman said. “And they’re the ones that don’t really want to explore this conversation with too much intentionality because, what if there isn’t an ROI for us? One of the things we will say, flat out, to associations is, there’s not a strong ROI for every organization.” 

The difficulty with chapters is, as online connectivity has grown, the idea of what “local” really means has shifted. And it’s not always clear to every organization what the definition is anymore. 

“Chapters used to have this clearly defined role based on drive time to get people in the same room so we can talk to each other,” Houstle said. “And that’s just been turned on its head. … Where is that relevance coming from? It’s not to say there is no relevance and there shouldn’t be relevance.” 

So, how do you know whether there is any?

Start by having the conversation, and that means getting every stakeholder on board with it. 

“If you do this analysis in the back room and don’t bring your chapter folks into the conversation, they’re not going to believe you,” Houstle said, regardless of the outcome. 

“The other area that tends to be problematic is the basic dearth of data,” he added. “That’s where you have chapters who do their data management on Post-It notes, on spreadsheets” or in various software programs. Without some consistency, it can be easy to skew the data, so be cognizant of that as you sample information. 

Hoffman recommends also examining the chapter from a member perspective, which also gets to the heart of why taking a hard look at the relevance of your chapter is so important. 

Use “a membership survey that doesn’t say ‘how valuable is the chapter?,’ because that doesn’t get you anywhere,” she said. Instead, “look at how members place value on local level activities.” 

This is important because “members don’t tend to differentiate between chapter activity or (national) activity programs in the way that staff and chapter leaders do,” Houstle added. “That increases the level of concern the staff has in saying, ‘are the chapters doing well?’ Because if they aren’t, it’s not just the chapter that takes the heat for that. (The national office is) going to take the heat, too.” 

You can read the full Chapter Benchmarking report here, but here are some key numbers: 

  • Just 4% of associations use some method to calculate chapter ROI
  • 18% recognize chapters’ financial contributions in their annual budgets
  • About half (49%) of chapters rely on volunteers for staffing
  • The average operating budget for chapters was $95,239
  • 64% of those surveyed said chapters were “absolutely essential” for member engagement
  • 74% of association HQs said their chapters had “occasional missteps”
  • 45% of respondents said chapters provide an “uneven value” 
  • 70% of respondents with chapters reported having closed a chapter in the past 5 years

Chelsea Brasted is the writer and editor who serves as content manager for AssociationSuccess.org. A former reporter and breaking news editor for The Times-Picayune, she lives in New Orleans with her husband and two rescue dogs.

Chelsea Brasted is the writer and editor who serves as content manager for AssociationSuccess.org. A former reporter and breaking news editor for The Times-Picayune, she lives in New Orleans with her husband and two rescue dogs.

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