When you ask chapters for benchmarking data, you don’t want to request the same old compliance checklist information. Instead, you want data that truly reflects chapter performance and progress toward mutual goals. As we mentioned in the first post in this series, this type of benchmarking data helps chapters improve performance, helps you prioritize the use of your association’s limited resources, and helps your association improve its relationship with chapters.
When considering a big project like this, it’s helpful to see how another association is doing it. We talked with Peter Houstle, CEO of Mariner Management, and Christi Beatty, vice president of chapter services and member engagement at the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), who are working together on AGC’s chapter benchmarking project.
5 prerequisites for a chapter benchmarking project
In discussing their experience so far, Christi shared some of the lessons learned. We believe these lessons are five prerequisites for a successful project.
#1: HQ support
AGC’s business plan illustrates the essential role and value of chapters to the association. One of the plan’s four pillars is “National Chapter Relationship and Member Engagement.” The AGC board, according to Christi, is super excited about this project. HQ support? Check.
If your board still needs convincing, explain how the impact of the benchmarking project will help your association achieve its strategic goals, for example:
- Increase the value delivered to members at the chapter level.
- Recruit new members.
- Generate more revenue for the association through the dues and purchases of these new members and engage existing members.
- Develop volunteer leaders for HQ’s leadership pipeline.
#2: Chapter ownership
You’ve got HQ on your side, now what about your chapters? This is where things get interesting. Your chapter benchmarking project could end up failing if chapters don’t have any sense of ownership in it. That’s likely to happen if HQ initiates the project and expects chapters to comply. That’s not what happened at AGC.
AGC chapters are independent entities in a federated model and are managed by staff executive directors. Nothing in the bylaws compels them to do a benchmarking project for AGC’s benefit. That’s why the project had to be the chapter executives’ idea.
The AGC Executive Leadership Council (ELC) is a membership group composed of executive directors from the 89 chapters with a governing board of ELC members. As they approached the start of another three-year strategic planning cycle, the board wanted to take a different approach by building continuous improvement into the plan. They chose Mariner Management to help them. The benchmarking project, starting with a chapter self-assessment, is an essential element of the ELC’s strategic plan.
#3: The right people on the bus
A project like this needs champions who can convince reluctant chapter executives to participate. A few ELC members, who had been around for a while, helped create the first self-assessment. These strong association managers were known and respected by their peers. They sold the idea by spreading a message to their peers: yes, this self-assessment is optional, but the ELC believes high-performing people are always self-assessing. This appeal to the ego worked with this particular set of leaders and may work with yours too.
#4: Sufficient resources
Unlike many chapter benchmarking projects, AGC’s is funded by the chapters themselves through their ELC dues. The ELC budget paid for Mariner’s services and the Dynamic Benchmarking platform. If chapter funding is not possible at your association, consider sharing the expenses or finding sponsors to help subsidize the project.
#5: Chapter self-assessments, not checklists
Chapter benchmarking projects often start with a checklist: Does your chapter do this or not? The problem with this approach, says Peter, is you’re not measuring what matters. Now, before we get to the metrics that matter, if you’re stuck with a checklist, it can still be useful if you encourage chapters to use the resulting benchmarking data in a new way.
If a chapter doesn’t do something that most other chapters do, it gives them the opportunity to ask, “Is that activity important to us?” On the other hand, if they’re doing something others aren’t, they can evaluate whether they really need to continue doing it. This compare/contrast exercise is useful for questioning assumptions.
Peter encourages chapters to take advantage of the pandemic zeitgeist. When change is in the air, everything can be up for review. You can’t assume the way you did something is still the best way. After the year we’ve all been through, everyone is knowingly or unknowingly experiencing changes in habits, preferences, interests, and values. Take a hard look at the effectiveness of traditional activities and ask if they still serve members or fulfill the mission.
Another problem with checklists is they’re not prioritized. Chapter leaders, especially during stressful conditions, aren’t questioning whether the checklist items matter. They don’t always do what’s most important, instead they do what’s easiest. The key to effective chapter self-assessment and performance benchmarking is measuring what matters.
What a tease, we haven’t yet told you what matters. Sit tight, we’ll share that along with a look at AGC’s successful chapter benchmarking and self-assessment tool in the next post.