10 Warning Signs of a Chapter Network in Trouble

We’ve identified ten warning signs of a chapter network in trouble. These signs let you know when action is required to set things right—maybe a complete remodel or restructuring, or tweaks to the existing model.

Anyone who’s lived with a dysfunctional kitchen knows how challenging it is to get a big meal on the table. Everything takes longer because ingredients and utensils aren’t handy. There’s only room for one person to work. The lighting is terrible. You’re cut off from your guests in the living room.

The warning signs are there—your kitchen needs a remodel or, at least, repairs that provide more visibility, light, and efficiency.

Remodeling isn’t only for kitchens. Sometimes an association’s chapter network needs a remodel or restructuring. This type of remodel also results in more visibility (of chapter data) and more efficiency (of processes). It can also turn a contentious relationship between National and its chapters into a mutually beneficial one.



When members remove themselves from their home base and take up leadership positions at National, they risk getting trapped in a ‘leadership bubble.’ These leaders are natural liaisons between National and its chapters.

But, because they’re no longer ‘average members,’ they should strive to stay in touch with fellow chapter members so they can spot trends, issues, needs, and challenges as they arise.One of the reasons national leaders lose touch is because your leadership culture may not sufficiently value the importance of chapters to the association’s mission.

Another reason: you don’t have a reliable leadership pipeline from chapters to National. Instead, national leaders find their own way by climbing up the leadership ladder without any support from their chapters.

“How can you support leadership development programs at the chapter level that help both National and chapters build a stronger leadership bench?”



Without representation, chapter issues aren’t heard at National. This could be an oversight on National’s part because it undervalues the contribution chapters make to the relationship. Address this problem by establishing a chapter leader advisory group that provides input on repairing the relationship and restructuring the network. Or, this lack of representation could be an intentional decision by chapters because their leadership doesn’t value their national partner.

Again, an advisory group would help improve this situation. As long as chapters and National have differences in opinion about each other’s purpose, goals, and value, you’ll have a troublesome relationship. Explore ways to decrease dysfunction by building trust, communication, and collaboration, such as creating opportunities for face-to-face meetings with chapter leaders.



Vacant leadership positions, leaders recycling through positions, and members holding multiple leadership positions at once—these are all signs of succession issues and a troubling omen for the future of your chapters. Why does this happen?

  • Without leadership development support from National, chapters don’t have the resources or expertise to develop future leaders or provide coaching to emerging leaders.
  • To prevent that, the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) incentivizes their chapters to budget for leadership development by providing a match up to $750 for each chapter. (Learn more in our webinar with ACG’s former CEO, Gary LaBranche.)
  • Chapters tolerate what Cynthia D’Amour calls the “martyr leader” syndrome—leaders are expected to take on unreasonable workloads and rewarded for their sacrifice.
  • National doesn’t provide enough technical support to relieve the chapters’ administrative burden—making leadership an undesirable position.


If the next generation is not involved in chapter leadership, or not in place to take over leadership, you’ll end up with an aging chapter leadership along with an aging chapter membership. When chapter leaders are out of touch with the needs and preferences of younger members and prospects, revenue (dues and non-dues) decreases because: Chapter program content and design doesn’t appeal to young professionals.


For example, the website isn’t mobile-friendly and the chapter isn’t active on social media (or does a poor job of it). Young professionals can’t afford to pay annual dues.

  1. How can you help chapters get younger members involved in leadership or program development?
  2. How can you help chapters bring their technology into the 21st century?
  3. How can you alleviate the high cost of membership? (Hint: our blog series on monthly auto-renewal dues may give you some ideas.)


You’re in trouble if chapters provide a 20th century online experience, for example: The chapter website is rarely updated, isn’t responsive (mobile-friendly), loads slowly, and has no search function.

Members can’t register for events or renew online. Member data is inaccurate or incomplete and reporting is difficult. Emails are blasted to everyone regardless of membership type, interests, and registration status.

These symptoms reflect an insufficient attention to and investment in the technology required to support a decent online experience. Members and prospects are bound to notice such failings, especially in comparison to the websites of other organizations and brands they frequent.

  1. What key items are your chapters asking for to improve the digital experience they provide?
  2. How can National support their efforts?


Sometimes it’s easy to tolerate a bad situation and not question its cause. For example, you might be used to the complaints about chapters taking a long time to process and disburse dues, send member data, and submit annual or other required reports. But why is this happening?

A time-consuming process put a burden on chapter staff and volunteers. Revenue isn’t collected on time. Forecasting becomes difficult.

And, National staff wastes time chasing down chapter staff and volunteers for information and data.The culprit is a familiar one: insufficient attention to and/or investment in technology that streamlines processes. And, once again, National can help solve this problem if the chapter relationship allows it.



Yes, declining membership is an obvious sign of trouble. Another sign of the poor health of your chapter network is when you see higher membership growth in at-large National memberships than in chapter memberships. When prospects and members don’t see the value of chapter membership, you either have a marketing problem or a value problem.

Solve both by positioning the value of National and chapter membership as complementary to each other, not competing. Restructuring provides the opportunity to allocate specific benefit responsibilities to National and its chapters.



A limited number of chapter programs isn’t an issue if those programs are highly attended and if members are satisfied with the number and value of chapter programs. If offering a limited number of programs is an intentional strategy, its success will be evident in the member retention rate.

But if you see declining retention rates along with fewer programs offered, something’s wrong. Chapters can’t afford to host events because the expenses aren’t covered by registration and sponsorship income.

“Chapters can’t find content providers—speakers, instructors, and facilitators. Leaders are either too absent or too busy to focus on programming.”

What’s the real cause? Sometimes we find chapters don’t have the time, resources, or capabilities to handle these responsibilities on their own, but agreements and bylaws don’t give National any opportunity to step in and help. Dive in and start asking difficult questions to find out what’s really going on.



Without revenue from event registrations, sponsorships, exhibit fees, advertising, and other sources, chapters have less funds to support operations and programming. Value is the driver of non-dues revenue. When non-dues revenue decreases, usually a lack of value is the cause.

Chapter leaders either don’t have the time or the knowledge to provide programming valued by members. Less members participate in chapter events, therefore, less revenue comes in from registration fees. Because of continual low attendance, sponsors and exhibitors pull their support.

By making changes to the organizational structure and re-engaging chapter leaders, Dresden Farrandformer director of membership and chapters at CoSN, increased sponsorship revenue by $300,000 and product sales by $70,000. (Watch the on-demand webinar Dresden guest hosted with us or view the presentation)



Sometimes you learn about a problem straight from your members. For example, a survey reveals that members aren’t renewing because of a poor chapter experience. If members don’t see the value of membership—either because the value’s not there or it’s not marketed well—chapter staff and volunteers need your help.

When chapters exhibit these warning signs, they’re not contributing to the membership value proposition and not having a positive impact on your association’s mission. What’s worse, your association loses members, revenue, and brand strength.

How do you know if your chapter network is in trouble? Have you heard whispers or rumors that change is needed? If you’re getting red flags or have a gut feeling but aren’t exactly sure what you should be looking for, then this webinar is for you. View Slides >>

Successful chapter-based associations have strong chapters. If the relationship is weak, you’re losing a lot of potential members, revenue and brand strength. We’ll walk the warning signs, problem, causes and next steps/takeaways in this webinar.


Have you considered a restructure in the past year? These are the top 10 warning signs:

  1. National leaders are not involved at their chapters: Chapter issues not being heard at National level, National leaders in a bubble
  2. No chapter representation in National governance: Again, chapter issues not being heard at National level
  3. Chapters have trouble recruiting volunteer leaders: There are vacant leadership positions, members are holding multiple positions at once and recycling leaders
  4. Aging chapter membership: Aging chapter membership and leadership -difficulty attracting younger members
  5. Poor digital membership experience: Lack of administrative infrastructure to support good online experience for members/prospects
  6. Chapters slow in submitting reports, money and data: Evert hing takes way too long -dues processing, sending member data, sending annual reports or other required reports
  7. Declining chapter membership: Declining chapter membership and higher membership growth in at-large National memberships than chapter memberships
  8. Declining non-dues revenue: Less funds to support operations, programming, etc.
  9. Fewer programs and events offered: Fewer programs/events -unable to find content providers, presenters or facilitators
  10. Low satisfaction rating among chapter members/events: Survey says chapter experience is why members don’t renew


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About the author

Kyle Bazzy is the former Growth Director at Billhighway. He is currently the Director and Co-Founder of Venture Catalysts, a ecosystem development group focusing on programming, funding, strategy and business for entrepreneurs.