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.
From chapter chairs to board change agents
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.
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:
- A one-page list of recommendations for reviewing and revamping the existing chapter structure.
- Additional board discussions and a growing sense of conviction that change was needed.
- 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.
- 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.
Increase chapter engagement using “the prism of the mission”
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.
Hire a mission-driven staff
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.”
Boost the empathy quotient of CRPs and senior staff
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.