Do Chapters Strengthen or Weaken an Association’s Membership?

You would probably agree with the statement that local and state chapters of national associations can provide a valuable service to members. They make more face to face interactions available and bring a geographic focus to important issues.

However, when we look at membership statistics of organizations with and without chapters, a more complicated picture arises.

In our soon to be published 2012 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, 688 unique associations identified whether or not they had chapters or were actually a chapter of a larger organization. A total of 349 did not have chapters, 318 had chapters, and 21 served as a chapter for a larger organization.

With this response, we compared just the associations that have chapters with those who reported that they do not have chapters on a number of key, self reported, membership statistics. Here is what we found.

• Associations without chapters were more likely to report an increase in membership over the past year than those associations with chapters (52% to 44%).

• Associations without chapters were more likely to report membership increases over the past five years (52% to 45%).

• Associations without chapters were more likely to report increases in renewal rates over the past year (51% to 43%).

• Associations without chapters were more likely to report renewal rates over 80% (52% to 45%).

What does this data mean? I do not think that it means that having a chapter structure is either good or bad. But it does seem to indicate that organizations that have chapters may need to work harder on membership recruitment and retention than those organizations that do not have this structure.

What have your experiences been working on membership within a chapter structure? Do you have an explanation of why these statistics seem to show one structure seems to work better than another? Please share your thoughts.


Dan said...

I'm not surprised by this. Associations with chapters must rely on those chapters to be apart of the membership experience and member expectations are tied to that geographic level of benefits and services. Associations without chapters have greater, more direct control over the membership experience and the marketing. I've experience with directing membership programs in both circumstances and it is easier to grow membership without chapters, but I believe chapters can provide added value to members as long as the chapter remains strong. In these economic times, chapters can drag overall membership growth down because the chapter becomes weaker.

Tony Rossell said...

Hi Dan -- Thanks for sharing your thoughts. From your feedback and the feedback I have received directly from people on this post, I am seeing a pattern. Everyone seems to agree that chapters can be a very positive contributor to the value proposition of an association. But it sounds like they can also add a layer of complexity if there is not clear coordination, leadership, and a clear vision. My sense is that when there is a breakdown in the association/chapter relationship it can serve as a drag to membership. This in my mind could account for the weaker membership statistics for organizations with chapters compared to those without. Tony

Denod1 said...

Dan & Tony, while I think chapters (when run effectively) add a lot of value to the membership, it seems the statistics you stated could be a reflection of the economic conditions. Organizations with chapters have national dues and chapter dues and perhaps folks don't want or need to pay both. When things are going well they don't mind, but when things "tighten" up something has to give. Some may chose national, some may chose local (if allowed) and some just may need to take a year or two off and attend the local meeting at the higher non-member rate. Probably is no one explanation and I hate to blame everything on the economy. Fact is if your membership provides outstanding value and it is an integral part of the members business and career, cost should never be the issue. Chapter or no chapters it all comes down to member value and the value perception/reality.

David Field said...

What does the ASAE data mean to NAIFA? It may mean nothing. The reason lies in the character of the surveyed associations i.e. the data pool. A myriad of national associations consist of individuals or companies that aren’t large in numbers, but are very focused in the subject(s) that bring them together. Think about the National Association of Atomic Scientists (NAAS), which has 150 members nationwide. It had an increase in membership last year; an increase in membership over the last 5 years; an increase in the renewal rate last year; and an increase in renewal rate over the last five years. With only150 members and little political interest, chapters would be irrelevant, inappropriate and unworkable. NAAS and many other narrowly focused national associations have very little in common with NAIFA’s 40,000 members either in terms of size or member interests and benefits. Yet they’re in the survey’s data pool. The fact that NAIFA has chapters and NAAS does not has no bearing upon the fact that NAAS is flourishing and NAIFA is not. Apples to oranges comparisons can lead to faulty conclusions.

A much more relevant comparison might be made between NAIFA and another 3- tiered federation, the American Institute of Architects (AIA)… roughly 70,000 members, 50 state components and 110 chapters. Though obviously the recession has adversely impacted the design/construction industry nationwide, AIA has not closed a single chapter or state association… and has continued to expand its professional and political influence even as NAIFA has lost ground.

NAIFA and AIA have comparable structures and governance… and their chapters draw from the same labor pool, so we might reasonably exclude staff quality as the culprit…

Could it be the membership model… or marketing… or something else?

Tony Rossell said...

Hi David – Thanks for your comment. Benchmarking comes with strengths and weaknesses. Wikipedia defines benchmarking as a “process used in management and particularly strategic management, in which organizations evaluate various aspects of their processes in relation to best practice companies' processes, usually within a peer group defined for the purposes of comparison. This then allows organizations to develop plans on how to make improvements or adapt specific best practices, usually with the aim of increasing some aspect of performance.”

For our purposes, we have defined the peer group broadly as membership associations. The challenge with this is that as you point out there is a good deal of variability between groups in size, purpose, and scope. The strength is that most membership associations use common terms and standards that can be used as a starting point of comparison.

That is why I always include an important disclaimer when I publish this annual report. Anyone reviewing the data should be aware that because an activity or practice has a statistical correlation with a growing or declining membership or better renewal rates, we are not claiming that any one behavior in and of itself causes this outcome. There are literally thousands of variables that impact membership results.

We do for example, ask respondents about the number of members, their budget, membership structure, and many other demographic characteristics. So I take these into consideration when reporting data. The challenge is that if you report data broken out be demographics, you have very small samples and can lose statistical validity.

Nevertheless, if as a marketer one sees that organizations with certain behaviors or practices tend to be doing better, one at least will want to explore the issue and see if there is something that can be applied to his or her organization.
I hope this helps explain the purpose and method or our reporting. Tony

Marcia Pierce said...

The real question is how many members of associations with chapter would retain their national membership if chapters were not an option. The industry and disposition of the membership is integral in this discussion.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Another variable (which maybe the complete report addresses) is how many of these associations require chapter members to be a part of the national structure and vice versa.

Kathryn Burton, CAE said...

Thre is another factor that must be considered: what is the reason tan association has chapters? Is is "history" with a club-mentality or are there structural regulatory reasons. For example, AIA or Self Storge Association needs to have chapters because of state licensure in the first case and state regulations in the second case. If there is no structural imperative connected to licensure or regulations requiring a chapter structure, the chapter structure--especially if the chapter structure retains the legacy of being a social club versus being representative of a strong professional identity--becomes an unnecesasry burden.

Tony Rossell said...

Hi Jeffrey -- Good question. And yes, we did ask whether or not chapter membership is optional in our research. Of the associations that answered the question, 349 said that they do NOT have chapters, 177 said that they had chapters, but that chapter membership was optional, and 141 said that they have chapters and chapter membership was required. When I did this comparision, I combined both versions of groups with chapters against those without chapters. The membership statistics appear to be very slightly better for chapter based groups who have optional chapter membership than required chapter membership. Tony