Beyond Borders: Uniting Chapter Communications

One thing’s missing in the position description for chapter leaders: the need to be excellent communicators. How else can they successfully recruit and engage members and other audiences, promote events and activities, and collectively keep the chapter running smoothly?

To help chapter leaders improve their communication skills, chapter relations professionals (CRPs) must be excellent communicators themselves. Otherwise, chapter leaders won’t be receptive to or aware of your messages and won’t know how you can help them improve chapter performance. However, two knotty challenges might still stand in your way.

Challenge #1

Getting the attention of busy chapter leaders

Aaron Gregory Smith, CAE, executive director at the U.S. Bartenders Guild, said his members are putting less priority on “workplace-adjacent activities,” like volunteering and chapter leadership. See, it’s not just you. Almost every association is struggling with volunteer recruitment and engagement.

Sheri Singer, founder of Singer Communications and special guest for our webinar on chapter communications, believes the pandemic caused many members to shift their priorities and focus more on their personal lives. “Many people realized they didn’t need to be busy every minute of every day. I can see how volunteering as a priority has dropped into a different rung on the life ladder.” It’s difficult to convince volunteer leaders to spend time doing anything extra, such as communications training.

Like you, chapter leaders have to monitor too many communication channels: personal and professional email inboxes, texts, and workplace platforms like Slack, Teams, and Asana.

Challenge #2

Rebuilding trust

Sadly, relationships with chapters are sometimes haunted by a lack of trust. “In decades working with associations, I’ve often seen an ‘us vs. them’ mentality,” said Sheri. This attitude toward the HQ association is passed down from one chapter leadership team to another. This mindset might not even be based on anything real, or it might be based on a misunderstanding from 14 years ago, but it’s still there, causing trouble for you now.

Sometimes associations unintentionally make it difficult to strengthen trust. HQ staff might not always see situations from the chapter leader’s perspective. “Chapters place a greater emphasis on local events, that’s where they allocate their resources and time,” said Sheri. “They don’t always have the time to tend to both chapter and association priorities. They’re not intentionally ignoring HQ priorities, but they’re making tough choices about where to spend their limited time.”

Think of chapter leaders as part of your association’s extended staff. Communicate with as much care and attention as you do with other internal audiences, like the board, and external audiences, like journalists, elected officials, and prospects.

Sheri shared a few common missteps to avoid. She’s seen associations release information to a general audience without first sharing it with chapter leaders. Chapter leaders are VIPs, treat them as such. She’s also seen associations ‘ghost’ chapter leaders by not communicating with them at all. 

How to build trust and strengthen communications with chapter leaders

Sheri recommended five strategies for improving your relationships and communications with chapter leaders.


Create regular channels for open two-way communication

Sheri said, “In building trust between chapters and associations, it’s all about communication, communication, communication.” Start the dialogue with regular Zoom open forums or virtual town halls. “Most importantly, build a platform where chapter leaders and volunteers feel safe airing their challenges, then you can work as a team to solve them. When people don’t feel safe, there’s no real dialogue.”

During the pandemic, she saw several associations start Ask Me Anything sessions, coffee chats, happy hours, and town halls. These virtual venues fostered connection and showed chapter leaders that the association was listening.


Bring a personal, caring touch to chapter leader support

Earn credibility as an ally to chapter leaders, not as one of ‘them.’ Show chapter leaders you care and you want to support them. Soon they will see you as a resource worth making time for and your emails as worth reading.

Don’t blast everything. Make time for individual check-ins via phone calls or brief Zoom meetings. Some CRPs insert a calendar link in their email signature to encourage chapter leaders to book one-on-one time during ‘office hours’. Show you care by being responsive to calls and emails—within boundaries, of course.

Listening is a superpower you can practice in many ways—from conducting polls and surveys to tracking email clicks and community conversations. What’s critical is what you do with what you hear. Listen to what’s being said (and not said) and share updates with HQ staff.

In a webinar last year on effective practices in communicating with chapter leaders, our CRP guests raised two related points: keep notes to help track what you’re hearing and, when necessary, bring up touchy topics.

If chapters have training needs outside your expertise, consider bringing in third-party support for leadership coaching, financial advice, or media training.


Set realistic expectations

Misunderstandings and finger-pointing tear trust apart. Make sure chapter leaders understand your mutual and separate responsibilities so everyone knows who does what.


Express gratitude and give them recognition

Everyone wants to know their work is appreciated and makes a difference, especially chapter leaders who sacrifice personal time to do it. Use stories and data to illustrate how their contributions impact your members, association, and industry.

Create opportunities for chapter recognition, including awards and ‘chapter of the month’ profiles.


Keep in mind the limited time they have for association business

Sheri said, “Both the association and chapter are competing for the most precious commodity of all—the chapter leader’s time. Volunteers have limited time. They will pick and choose where they want to put their efforts.”

Don’t waste their time. Make sure everything you ask for makes their job easier somehow—that means not just asking for things because you always have. Why do you really need it? How will it ultimately help the chapter? Connect the dots for them.

Respect their inbox. Pay attention to the frequency and relevance of emails sent to them. Segment email lists by chapter size and leadership role so every email is relevant.

Do an email audit so you know how many emails a chapter leader is receiving from your association. Track email opens to determine the best delivery time. Be consistent by sending regular emails, like ‘tip of the month’ or ‘chapter leader updates’, at the same time every month. Follow the same principle when scheduling meetings too.

Design reader-friendly emails.

  • Use descriptive, concise subject lines. Include words like ‘deadline’, ‘request’, ‘action required’, and ‘due date’, when appropriate.
  • Make sure ‘From’ lines show a person’s email address (a name they recognize), not a generic email box.
  • Use short paragraphs, bullets, and bold phrases so emails are easy to skim. Reemphasize what’s most important for them to take away.
  • Follow a consistent design so they know where to look for information. Devote sections to timely essentials they need to take action on or be aware of, HQ news of interest to their members (not a sales pitch), and chapter leader resources.

Help chapters improve their communication practices

A chapter communications toolkit is a valuable resource to offer. Sheri suggested including resources that help chapter leaders position themselves as association and industry leaders and talk ‘on brand’ about the association, such as:

  • Key messages and sub-messages aka association talking points, the foundation of your verbal brand
  • ‘About the Association’ one-pager
  • FAQ: myths and truths, especially helpful in controversial industries
  • Steps for creating a chapter communications plan
  • Instructions for including the association/chapter in email signatures
  • Sample elevator speeches and news releases
  • Sample chapter website landing page, social media posts, and journalist and legislator pitches
  • List of communications resources available from HQ

Sheri’s done virtual road shows to walk chapter leaders through the toolkit.

She also recommends offering communications training to chapter leaders. First, do a needs assessment to find out what type of communications they send to members and external audiences now and what they’d like to send in the future. Since they don’t know what they don’t know, give them a list to choose from with the option to add other items. Ask them to also choose the communications skills they’d like to develop or improve. With this information, you can segment chapter leaders by needs, share the most relevant resources with them, and identify training you need to offer.

To more effectively connect with chapter leaders, ask them to take a communication style quiz (like this 12-question quiz). For emails covering important topics, segment chapter leaders by their style—analytical, intuitive, functional, or personal—to more effectively get your message across.

Chapter leaders and volunteers are more likely to make time for learning skills they can apply in their ‘day’ job now or in the future, for example, email copywriting, coaching, listening, and giving feedback. Plus, their employer is more likely to give them time away if the training aligns with company needs too.

Encourage peer-to-peer communication by hosting a private chapter leader community or Slack. Individually connect leaders who can help each other solve problems. Pair up mentors and mentees. Convene regular chapter leader workshops, interactive webinars, and meetups where they can share success stories and consult their peers (and you) for advice.

Communication is the foundation of trusting relationships between your association and chapter leaders, between chapter leaders, and between chapters and their internal and external audiences. Good communication skills can transform relationships and help everyone involved perform at their best. Check out our webinar recording, Beyond Borders: Uniting Chapter Communications, for strategies and tactics to improve your chapter relationships and communications.


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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.