We listened in on a conversation between Courtney Bulger, former vice president of membership and chapter relations at and Brian Calvary, CAE, director of membership and chapters at the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). They discussed new chapter initiatives at CoSN as well as chapter challenges (familiar to any association) that Brian and his team are handling.
First, a little background on CoSN:
Courtney: One of the things that caught my attention when we chatted earlier was what CoSN is doing with chapters in rural communities. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Brian: Sure. I’ll tell you about Wyoming where we don’t have a chapter. About 80 percent of Wyoming’s school districts are rural and small with less than 2,500 students. One of our Wyoming members thought other school districts could benefit from a CoSN membership, but said they probably didn’t understand what we offered or weren’t as familiar with us as they needed to be to make the decision to join.
Before we can get a district to see the value in a chapter, we have to get them to see the value in membership. They need to see how our resources can help them as rural school districts.
So we came up with a proposal. We’d give one educational technology leader in all of Wyoming’s small districts free access to CoSN resources for one year. In exchange, they fill out surveys, so we can measure their engagement; see what’s working, and ask questions about their needs so we can understand them better.
About half the eligible districts are participating and half of those have completed the surveys, which, to be honest, is higher than I expected.
Courtney: Wow, that is pretty good, half are filling them out?
Courtney: There’s no repercussions to not filling them out? You’re not going to take the membership away, right?
Brian: Exactly. We’re doing the surveys on a quarterly basis. So we send out the initial survey and one follow-up reminder. We keep the questions short. We don’t want to bog them down too much.
So, they’re getting access to our resources, which are pretty fantastic, if I can say that. It seems they’re using our website more now than when they started, which means they’re accessing more resources.
And, we’re getting feedback. We’re getting to show them the value of membership. We’re getting to test things on them as a small control group. So I think we’re both getting a lot out of this.
Courtney: Good. I really like that idea. I think a lot of associations could use that.
Courtney: So tell me, just like any association, CoSN must have competition from other groups out there. How do you leverage your components to set yourself apart from some of your competitors?
Brian: The list of competitors for every association continues to grow as we face competition from outside the association world. One of the things that sets us apart is our organizational membership—the school district is the member as opposed to the individuals. We think it takes a team to transform learning, so membership is for the entire team.
Organizations can add as many individuals from their district as they want. Some districts include their superintendents. Some include building-level staff like a principal who may have a special background in technology or just a special interest in technology. Our job is to help the whole team succeed.
Courtney asked Brian about several challenges faced by most associations with chapters.
Courtney: What do you think is the biggest challenge with your chapters right now?
Brian: Remembering that not all chapters need and want the same things. It’s important to listen to your chapter leaders and see how you can meet them where they are. The needs of our Virginia chapter are probably very different from the needs of our New Mexico chapter.
Brian: Because chapters are mostly volunteer-run, sometimes it’s harder to get regular communication going, but we always need to be in constant communication.
Courtney: True. What are some of the ways you communicate with your chapters?
Brian: We do check-in calls with each chapter three times a year. I have a staff member who tries to do them with every chapter, but it’s dependent on the chapter leadership showing up for the call.
Courtney: Is that just for the chapter president?
We leave it up to the chapter president whether it’s just them or whether it’s their whole board or whoever wants to participate. It’s important to be flexible with chapters because they all are so different.
Courtney: One of the challenges for associations with chapters is to measure the health of the chapter, which is what you’re doing when you talk to them on these calls. What else are you doing to measure chapter success?
Brian: We’re doing a few things in that regard. This past year we created a chapter health scorecard. We assigned points to things we believe help chapter longevity, for example:
We look at things that add member value at the chapter level. In our latest membership satisfaction survey, we also asked our members if they were satisfied with their chapters.
We look at the health of our relationship with the chapter as well.
These all help build the relationship between national and the chapter.
Courtney: And what would you say about a chapter that isn’t participating? What are you going to do to get that chapter more engaged—to participate in the calls or get their leadership involved?
Brian: There are a couple of things. We’re working with two chapters right now that had lower scores on the engagement metrics. What we found is some chapters just need a little more handholding. They get into analysis paralysis when there’s so much they can do and they don’t really know what to do, so they don’t do anything.
Brian: I think that happens sometimes with volunteer leaders because they’re volunteers. They’re not association professionals like you or me. So we need to help them a little bit more, especially newer chapters that don’t have a deep leadership bench. We help them find other people who could help or people who have been through the process a couple of times.
Courtney: Do your chapters struggle with getting their leadership each year?
Brian: That varies by chapter. The newer a chapter is, the more they struggle. A chapter comes together because four, five, or six people really believe in the CoSN mission. They set it up and then have to bring more people into it.
So that’s an area where we can help because if a chapter is two years old, they may not have engaged yet with all their members on a deep enough level to recruit them for leadership. Or, there may be former members who we can welcome back to the fold who might not have known about the chapter because it hasn’t been around long.
Courtney: Yeah, with some of these chapters, if they’re really small, everybody has already been president or served so many roles. Sometimes it’s difficult for them to stay afloat because they only have so many volunteers.
Brian: Absolutely. That’s where things like come in handy. How are you training not just your replacement within the chapter but how are you training your team at work? Are you getting your own team involved in the chapter? How can they become a bigger part of the membership and a part of the volunteer leadership?
Courtney: Yeah, trying to get more people from all the different organizations involved.
Courtney: Not just one person. I really believe in that because hopefully if you get more people from the organization that will help with renewals.
Courtney: Because more people are involved and engaged. If you only have one person, that one person leaves and nobody else in the organization has the same commitment or relationship—that makes that renewal hard.
Brian: Yes. I was just having a conversation the other day about this. We send our membership satisfaction survey out to all the individuals who receive member benefits. And if ten people at an organization say “Yes, I’m very likely to renew,” and one person says “No,” you think they’re going to renew. But if that one person is the decision-maker, they’re not.
Courtney: Right. Very good point.
Courtney: Do you have any kind of mechanism where chapters can help each other?
Brian: We do. When we find they’re having issues with a particular area or they’re looking to build up a particular area, we say: “Oh, you want to work on advocacy. This chapter is really good at advocacy. Let me introduce you to their chapter leader.” We’ll give them an introduction like that.
Courtney: And then, of course, the face-to-face networking is always helpful.
Brian: Yes. At last year’s chapter event during the annual conference, we had three chapter leaders give ten-minute TED talk-style presentations about things that were affecting them. One was about advocacy. One was about rural district issues. And the other was about building relationships with other organizations.
Then we broke up into five or six different tables with staff and volunteer leaders talking about specific issues, like how to recruit more members. Somebody else was talking about their mentorship program. Another person was talking about advocacy. You could attend two of the table talks about different topics.
Courtney: Is this a one-day event?
Brian: It’s only about half a day. The feedback we’ve been getting was that one day was too long, especially at our conference, which tends to be jam-packed with things for people to do. So we do a four-hour event and then I schedule an additional two hours so they can come to us with questions or talk with people who want to set up chapters in their areas.
Courtney: One year from now, what do you hope you’ll have accomplished within your chapter network?
Brian: It’s funny you should ask. I just submitted my goals for the year, so these are very fresh in my mind. I want to integrate chapters a bit more into everything we’re doing.
Chapters often have deeper relationships with more members than we do because they’re meeting them on the local level. I think we need to work with chapters more to leverage those relationships. Our chapters are already part of our renewal process, but I want to make them a larger part of our recruitment process as well because it benefits both of us to grow membership.
Courtney: How are you going to integrate chapters more with CoSN and leverage the relationships they have?
Brian: I think it needs to happen at the strategic level. You have to think about how everything fits into the strategic priorities for the year. So if we want to promote our certification more through the chapters, we have to talk to the chapters about it. Are there folks at the chapter level who already have it? What are the benefits they’re seeing from it? How do we work with them to promote it more within their membership? Are they willing to host an event that’s around that? How can we work together?
Courtney: That’s great.
Courtney: Brian, I can’t thank you enough for helping and doing this Billhighway podcast today. We’ll include your contact information in case people want to follow up and find out about some of the things you’re doing, including the rural chapters and the scorecard.