Relationships are tricky. Chapters don’t like their national association looking over their shoulder like Big Brother. Or, nagging them with requests for data. But, the national association has to know which chapters need help or are at risk of failing. Or, which ones have success stories to share. How else can national find out unless chapters are more transparent with their financials and other information?
Everyone likes to talk about the virtues of being a transparent organization. But, in reality, becoming more transparent is a difficult and sometimes uncomfortable transition to make.
The argument for sharing chapter data and information
National associations want to know what their chapters are doing so together they can avoid any overlap in benefits and, therefore, provide a better value proposition for members. “The goal is to offer differentiated but complementary services that give value to membership at both levels,” said Trevor S. Mitchell, CAE, senior director of membership and strategy at American Mensa, in the Component Relations Handbook. This approach to benefits also helps reduce what Mitchell calls “internal competition” between national and chapters.
When chapters willingly share financial data, national can identify which chapters are at risk financially. Before a chapter’s financial situation worsens, national knows where to target resources, perhaps supplementing a chapter’s budget, or providing support services or consultation.
If chapters share metrics and information about their activities, national knows where to provide support for chapter operations or member engagement efforts, for example:
- Shared services: database, website, email marketing, dues collection, D&O and liability insurance, PR/crisis management, tech strategy, or content
- Volunteer leadership development
- Expertise in volunteer development, event planning, sponsorship, marketing, governance, finance, legal, or HR
Chapter metrics also provide a basis for benchmarking performance. Chapters can see how they compare with others and where they should focus their efforts.
With the national association acting as facilitator, chapter staff and leaders have much to teach each other. By sharing success stories, chapters can help each other improve operations and member programs, such as:
- Educational and social events
- Sales of products and services
- Engagement and communication tactics
Chapter best practices can also be recognized and publicized further with an annual chapter awards program.
What are the obstacles to chapter transparency?
Despite the many ways chapters benefit from being more transparent about their data and activities, many aren’t willing to share this information. “It’s none of your business” is the unspoken message you receive when your emails go unanswered. Why is this?
Sadly, a lack of trust lies at the root of the problem.
Perhaps you inherited a history of poor personal or organizational relationships between your association and some of your chapters. The fallout from a personality conflict or misunderstanding can reverberate long after the guilty parties have left the scene. “They’re difficult,” says a staff member. “They don’t understand,” says a chapter leader. Misperceptions and assumptions are made – the cycle of low expectations continues.
Once the ‘us vs. them’ mentality starts to fester, it’s difficult to eradicate. This destructive mindset might be based on:
- One person’s bad experience with another
- An institutional slight
- An inflamed ego – personal or institutional
- Simply hearsay that’s become a cultural truth.
Often the national association and chapters get stuck in a parent/child mindset, instead of a more beneficial partnership. National perceives chapters as high-maintenance, soaking up too much of their time and money, instead of seeing them as potential strategic assets and value delivery partners.
Chapters sense this lack of respect. They don’t feel heard. What’s worse, many of them perceive national as a rival instead of a partner. For example, they begrudge national for going after the same sponsors and advertisers.
Chapters have egos too. Some of them may be too embarrassed to share their data. They’re too proud to ask for help. They rather hide their poor performance and plod along.
Are you really all in it together?
The ‘us vs. them’ mentality increases its grip when a national association and its chapters don’t work together to develop common goals. If chapters focus only on their own priorities and needs, they won’t see the value in making an effort for the common good. Partners must agree on mutual expectations – how each of them will do their share to achieve common goals.
Chapters say they don’t have time to share data.
Chapter staff or volunteer leaders say they wish they could comply with your request, but they don’t have the time to put together what you need. What does that really mean? It means you’re making it too difficult. In their mind, the ‘pain’ of sharing data speaks louder than the benefit of sharing it. So, how can you make it easier for them?
Solving the data-sharing challenge: Build trust and repair your relationship with chapters.
It won’t be easy but building trust is absolutely necessary if you want to improve your relationship with chapters and convince them to share their data. Trust results from a series of actions, words aren’t enough. Trust takes a long time to build but can be lost in a moment.
Get rid of the ‘us vs. them’ mentality.
Nothing destroys trust more than the ‘us vs. them’ mindset. Start shifting this mindset by reeducating your national colleagues and volunteer leaders on the purpose, activities, and value of chapters. National staff and leaders must understand the critical role chapters play in delivering value to members. Illustrate this role by sharing chapter success stories so staff and leaders see chapters as a strategic asset, not another group to manage.
Try transparency yourself.
Actions speak louder than words. You’ll stand on more solid ground when asking for transparency by being more transparent yourself. The inner workings of your association may seem mysterious to the average member, as well as to chapter leaders and staff. Talk to them to find out what isn’t clear about the way your organization works.
For starters, pull back the curtain on association governance. Board meetings are usually handled in a routine manner by those involved. But the majority of chapter staff and leaders probably have no idea what goes on during those meetings. They would feel more invested in national’s strategy if they knew what’s happening behind the scenes for their benefit.
Make it personal.
Trust grows when people meet face to face, even if it’s through a screen. Give chapter staff and leaders the opportunity to put faces to the names of their national counterparts. Create a picture in their minds of national as a building of people, not of policies and procedures. The Association for Corporate Growth did a great job of this when former CEO, Gary LaBranche, took his position back in 2008. Listen to his story here.
A video update from the board chair or liaison about the upcoming board agenda will go a long way to demystifying the governance structure and creating a more personable relationship. After the meeting, tell chapters what happened and how those actions or decisions impact them. Does the board need any feedback or information from them for the next meeting?
When possible, get together with chapters in person.
- Take a chapter road trip.
- Invite chapter leaders to HQ or another location for a retreat to discuss goals and strategy, and to provide training.
- Set aside a day at a conference for this purpose and subsidize attendance if money’s an issue.
Whenever you introduce a new initiative or change, like asking chapters to share data, you have to first understand the resistance to change. Your ability to overcome that resistance will depend greatly on the type of relationship you have with chapters. To get their buy-in, you want a partnership built on trust, respect, and common purpose.