A New Mindset Led to Increased Chapter Engagement at RAPS

Very few associations have successfully restructured their approach to chapters, but the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society (RAPS) has done it with great results.

  • The number of volunteer-led chapter events increased by 63%.
  • The number of participants in chapter events increased by 22%.
  • And, the number of local networking groups—the first step toward establishing a chapter—increased from one to eight groups.

This shift in their mindset and approach to chapters and chapter volunteers didn’t happen overnight. We sat down with Lindsay Currie, Director of Stakeholder Engagement, and Wesley Carr, Senior Manager of Chapter and Volunteer Relations, to learn how RAPS did it.



RAPS started in the same place as many associations: their relationship with components was a bit adversarial at times. However, change was in the pipeline—the leadership pipeline. After serving as chapter chair, many volunteer leaders were taking the next step up the ladder into RAPS leadership. Eventually the RAPS board included directors whose perspectives took in the entire organization, including chapters.

RAPS Association Component Exchange

A few years ago, about a third of the board directors happened to be former chapter chairs. This new board composition put the chapter issue onto the agenda. Three of the directors decided to talk with every chapter chair about their goals, obstacles, and pain points. Wes said, “They learned how the chapter envisioned its role and how the chapter envisioned headquarters’ role.”

Those conversations were the spark that led to:

  1. A one-page list of recommendations for reviewing and revamping the existing chapter structure.
  2. Additional board discussions and a growing sense of conviction that change was needed.
  3. The board making a decision to take action: “The turning point was when the board said, ‘We’ve got to figure this out,’” said Wes.
  4. The board chair, three long-time chapter chairs, Wes, and another colleague participated in a facilitated workshop where they discussed a new vision for chapters, a new chapter network operating model, ideas for pilot programs, and next steps. They developed an outline of a plan to bring to chapters.

Chapters would have a more strategic role in RAPS’ long-term plan. RAPS would commit to providing new resources for chapters, for example, an online tool kit to help volunteer leaders manage their chapters, an online community for chapter leaders, and an annual chapter leadership summit.



The pivotal shift at RAPS came about because of a change in internal conversations. Decisions were now based on RAPS’ goals and how those goals impact and are impacted by chapters. “The question for us was no longer ‘How does this make us money?’” said Lindsay. “We shifted to new questions, like ‘How does this impact members?’ or ‘How does this affect our mission in the long term?’ We put everything through the prism of the mission.”

Organizations must ask themselves how their decisions impact members, chapters, and their strategic goals. “Those questions dictate what you do and how you operate,” said Lindsay. “It’s not just about hitting budget numbers. You’ll hit those numbers if you’re creating content and a community that fulfills the needs of the profession.”

The shift to a focus on members, not the organization, changed how RAPS staff handled situations and made decisions. For example, snow was predicted for the day of a big event in Atlanta. Members were told they’d get a full refund if the weather prevented them from attending.

“Sure, there were financial implications for RAPS but we’re no longer buying into short-term thinking,” said Lindsay. “If you want your association to be around for the next hundred years, you can’t just be looking at tomorrow.” Or, the quarterly budget.



Collectively, the RAPS staff is focused anew on their mission, but individually, Lindsay believes, they need to be mission-driven as well.

“If you go around the office at any association, people know they have a mission, but they probably can’t tell you what it is,” said Lindsay. “No matter what your position, your job is to push that mission forward—that’s a mindset shift that needs to happen at associations if we’re going to continue to be successful.”

Associations often look for the wrong things when hiring staff. For example, when hiring for a component relations professional (CRP) position, they look to see whether the applicant has worked with chapters before. “That doesn’t tell you whether they were good at it or not,” said Lindsay.

She recommends making sure the applicant is fired up by working on a mission and understands that members come first. “You can teach someone database skills, but you can’t teach passion, that has to come from within,” she said. “They have to want to work with people and want to move a mission forward.”



The CRP’s job is a balancing act. You have to know when and where to draw the line from the organizational standpoint—when you absolutely have to say “No.” But at the same time, you have to understand the volunteer’s perspective and be flexible enough to find middle ground.


In addition to everything volunteers have on their plate, they choose to commit a great deal of time and energy to your association, many of them for years and years. “That’s a big deal and sometimes we take it for granted,” said Wes. “We need to pause and think about that commitment because it’s pretty impressive.”

“Volunteers give their heart, soul, and spare time to us,” said Lindsay. “We have to make that time worth their while. We need to tell them what kind of impact they make so they know their time is well spent and understand how much they’re appreciated.”

Both Wes and Lindsay believe that if you work with volunteers, you should spend time being a volunteer so you understand the volunteer perspective. “You have to understand that today we might be number 18 on their list of priorities,” said Wes. “Never say, ‘Hey Joan, I need this by tomorrow.’ Maybe her son’s big game is tomorrow so she’s not thinking about us. It’s really important for us to always keep their perspective in mind when we’re working with these folks.”


Wes practices what he preaches. “We have the thinnest walls at RAPS, so I get to hear Wes talk to members all day long, and it’s awesome to hear,” said Lindsay. “He loves his members, he loves his volunteers—and they know that. His volunteers would do anything for him because of how he treats them.”

CRPs understand what the chapter and volunteer experience means to their members, but their colleagues don’t always have the same level of empathy. To help “raise their consciousness,” all of RAPS’ senior executives and senior directors will visit a chapter program in 2018. “This has never happened before, it’s never even been on the radar before,” said Wes.


“At chapter events, they’re going to experience that sense of community that defines chapters,” said Wes. “There’s something special about chapter activities coordinated by volunteers. That community feeling is above and beyond anything headquarters can provide. I’m excited our senior colleagues will get a taste of that.”

The internal mindset changes made by RAPS—their focus on mission, impact, and empathy—will help them build a sustainable chapter community. It all started with the change agents on the board, but those directors weren’t the only change agents at RAPS. Lindsay and Wes also took on the change agent role so they could help nurture a more collaborative and empathetic culture throughout RAPS.


The Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society (RAPS) have 7 tips for becoming a successful association change agent and strengthen the chapter community.


“Change is not for the faint of heart,” said Wes. At RAPS, they’re still trying to convince some colleagues of the new approach’s benefits, but many have caught on. This new approach includes:

  • Having empathy for chapters and their volunteer leaders.
  • Focusing on a decision’s impact on chapters and their members.
  • Putting everything through “the prism of the mission.”

Lindsay said to prepare yourself for the long haul if you’re in the midst of change. It may take a while for financial and chapter reports to reflect the positive moves you’re making. “You have to be willing to stick with it,” she said. “You have to be willing to have difficult conversations, continuously. And, you have to be willing to defend your staff and your volunteers, continuously.”

It took two and a half years for RAPS, but finally their numbers are where Lindsay said they’d be one day if they changed their approach to chapters.



When you start out with a plan for a new chapter strategy, it doesn’t have to be a detailed outline of everything you want to do. You need a vision for where you’re heading, an agreement on what’s most important to accomplish along the way, and a willingness to adapt as you go.

Lindsay says, “We constantly tweaked our plan. You also have to be willing to throw it in the garbage when necessary.”



Sometimes, Lindsay said, you have to get real with colleagues who don’t see the writing on the wall. Here’s a taste of her candor “Do you want this association to last? Because the way we’re going, we’re not going to last. We’re going to have to do something radical and drastic because, otherwise, we’re going to slowly die.”

To make the medicine go down a little easier, show, don’t just tell. Share stories about associations, like RAPS, who have done something similar to what you want to do. Or, get to know some of your peers who have done something similar and invite them to talk with your colleagues about their experiences. You can meet your CRP peers at our Chapter Roundtables or annual Association Component Exchange (CEX).

“Take some of our successes at RAPS and use them as the support you need to move forward,” said Lindsay. However, she advised, manage expectations. Point out how long it took RAPS and other associations to see results.



“Some days are going to really blow and be really hard. Some months are going to be really hard,” said Lindsay. How’s that for frank?

During those hard times, you want to be able to tap on others and ask:

  • How do I get through this?
  • What suggestions do you have?
  • Can you just listen to me gripe for 20 minutes?

Having this critical support network will help you get through challenging times—another good reason to attend CEX and/or Chapter Roundtables.



People, including your colleagues and chapter leaders, like associating with winners so take advantage of that natural human desire. “Get a couple of small wins under your belt and scream about them to the mountaintops,” said Wes.

When Wes works with chapters on new programs that end up being successful, he makes sure other chapters know about it. For example, a few chapters collaborated with him on a new career program. “We’d never done anything like that before and now it’s one of the biggest programs we do every year.”

When chapters do something successfully—a new process or program—brag about their success to other chapters. Wes said he can push and push a new program idea on chapters, but when chapters see one of their own take that idea and succeed, their example carries more weight.

Chapters aren’t the only ones listening to Wes brag about small wins. “We now have people in our organization begging to do stuff with us whereas two years ago, they didn’t want to touch chapters with a ten-foot pole,” said Lindsay. Their RAPS colleagues are seeing the chapter team celebrating their success and want some of that magic for themselves.



Lindsay revealed another secret for getting colleagues interested in what you’re doing. “We have among our team an obligation to champion the success of others in our organization even if it has nothing to do with us. We do this so we can spread our team culture around the building and encourage other staff to want to work on projects with us.”

Nurturing that mindset has been fruitful for Lindsay and Wes. Colleagues now want to collaborate with them because, among other reasons, they know the chapter team will tell their boss how great it was to work with them. “Nobody says, ‘I loved working with that person, let me go tell their boss,’ but we do,” said Lindsay.



“If nobody in your organization really cares about supporting chapters, you’re never going to change things,” Lindsay said. “You need to change the tone of your internal conversations and your conversations with chapters.”

This philosophy lies at the heart of RAPS’ success. They changed the language they use with and about chapters. “You have the power to control the conversation,” she said. “We stopped talking about finances with our chapter leaders and instead started talking about engagement. As a result, the relationship changed.

They applied the same strategy to the language they use internally. “We started talking more positively with our colleagues and now they want to work with us more,” she said.

Association change agents take small steps in the direction of their vision. These small actions eventually lead to small wins. Shifts in conversations lead to new kinds of relationships. The momentum builds and one day you’ll look back, like Lindsay and Wes do now at RAPS, and see how far you’ve come with your chapters and your colleagues.


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About the author

Sarah has a soft-spot for component relations professionals (CRPs), creating amazing experiences, and having a good laugh. She focuses her time at Billhighway on building and delivering chapter-focused resources, creating unique experiences for CRPs through webinars, events and the one-of-a-kind Component Exchange (CEX). Sarah is passionate about exploring new ideas and trying new things. What we really want to say is Sarah is a component bad@$$ who is sure to put a smile on your face.