“I heard about this organization called NIGP,” said Rick Grimm who’s now CEO of the same NIGP, the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing. He was recalling the start of his journey from chapter to C-suite: attending educational programs, earning a certification, and then getting involved in leadership at the Miami-Dade County chapter.
“Association leadership often begins at the chapter level,” said Rick. “Later I got on a couple of national committees and, sure enough, NIGP had an opening on the board. After that, the chief executive position opened up. I applied for that, and 20 years later, here I am.”
To help understand NIGP’s structure
NIGP serves 16,000 individual members who represent about 3,000 public agencies, including local, county, state and federal governments; education systems and institutions (K-12, colleges and universities); and special taxing districts such as airports and port authorities. The agency, as the primary member, has the flexibility to select employees as individual members based on the value of NIGP services and employee roles and responsibilities. These employees are the ones entrusted to spend tax dollars by purchasing goods and services on behalf of their agency.
NIGP has 72 chapter affiliates—city, regional and state chapters—throughout the U.S. and Canada. These chapters are legally separate entities with separate memberships and dues. Of note, professionals can be a member of a NIGP Chapter but not a member of the national organization. Most chapters are run by volunteers, except for a few large ones, like the Virginia chapter, which is led by a volunteer board and administratively managed by an AMC.
Rick’s value-first chapter philosophy
Rick believes in a value-first approach to chapter membership. “Chapters are where the knowledge sharing and networking happens,” he said. “Don’t get hung up on whether chapter members are members of the National association or not. People will find the money for membership if they see the value in what you provide.”
He believes associations are missing an opportunity and doing a disservice to their professional community by not supporting their chapters. “I’ve heard some associations say: ‘Let the chapters do their own thing. They’re separate from us. There doesn’t need to be a synergy between the chapters and National.’ I totally disagree with that,” he said.
“Our role is to make sure chapters are successful in delivering member services at the local level because that’s where the connection occurs. You’ve got to invest in chapters and provide them with resources and tools they can use with their own members.”
Chapters are volunteer-driven organizations led by people who may spend 12 hours at work and then go home to family responsibilities and community activities like church or softball. “It’s challenging for them to step up and take on leadership roles,” he said.
“We must provide chapters not only financial resources but also ongoing resources that help their leaders thrive,” Rick said. “Like many associations, we have a chapter resource library, but we also need to constantly remind chapters about the services they get from us, so we invested in a chapter ambassadors program.”
How NIGP’s chapter ambassadors program got started
In 2013, the NIGP board of directors reviewed its governance structure. In the articles of incorporation, bylaws and board policies, they found 67 unique roles defined for the board. “The board decided to delegate 42 of these roles to three newly-formed councils that make up the governance structure, so they could focus more on strategy,” said Rick.
At that point, the NIGP directors were elected from 13 geographic areas in the United States and Canada. Directors were expected to visit chapters in their area every four years. “If you think about it, that’s a significant gap in time,” said Rick. “Also, we didn’t provide directors with a methodology for approaching the chapter, just go out and have a conversation, maybe do a presentation.”
The directors had different communication styles and delivered different messages. Some were good strategists, but not good public speakers. “We needed people who love public speaking, who like to go out, shake hands and do presentations,” said Rick. “Why don’t we take the visitation requirements out of the board’s responsibilities and create a chapter ambassadors program as part of this new governance structure?”
NIGP launched their chapter ambassador program in 2016. They identified two to three chapter ambassadors for each geographic area.
- Is your board spending time on non-strategic or non-essential roles and activities? Who can get them to realize this?
- What can the board delegate to other volunteer leadership groups?
Expectations for chapter ambassadors
NIGP provides training for chapter ambassadors primarily so they understand and achieve the program’s objective: demonstrating the value of NIGP membership. Ambassadors visit each chapter every two years to educate their leaders and members about NIGP services. They now have a consistent approach and message thanks to a standard presentation provided by NIGP that can be adapted to the culture of the chapter they’re visiting.
Chapter ambassadors spend a day and a half to two days at the chapter. “They’re either taking vacation time to make the visits, or their agency says, ‘This is really important, go and do the visit,’ and gives them time off,” said Rick.
NIGP covers the travel and training expenses for chapter ambassadors. Each visit is budgeted at about $750 to $1000 a person. For 36 visits, that’s about $27,000 to $36,000 a year, “a great investment for the relationship building and feedback you get,” said Rick.
Chapter ambassadors meet with chapter officers and, when possible, the board. “It’s a liaison relationship,” said Rick. “They ask: ‘What’s working well? What’s not working well that we can help fix for you?’ Chapter leaders tell the ambassadors about the struggles they’re having. Ambassadors are familiar with our resource library so they can suggest resources that can help leaders address those issues.”
The chapter ambassadors gather information and report back to Jennifer Steffan, NIGP’s chapter relations manager, with a detailed assessment of their visit. These reports help NIGP know where to take action, for example, by developing new resources or strengthening specific areas of communication.
- How often do representatives from the National association visit with each of your chapters? Do you have a regular, consistent approach to chapter visits?
- Do you have a regular method for learning about chapter challenges and successes? How do you use that information?
- Would a chapter ambassador program help your relationship with chapters? What barriers would you have to overcome to establish one?
Talent Council for chapter ambassador and volunteer recruitment
Another result of NIGP’s governance restructure was a new Talent Council. This group acts as NIGP’s “HR arm for volunteers.” The philosophy driving the Talent Council is to lead with the volunteer, not the vacancy. Rick explained: “One of the mistakes associations make is saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got a vacancy on the finance council. Is anyone interested?’ People volunteer without really knowing what they’re getting into.”
When people indicate they’re interested in volunteering for NIGP, someone on the Talent Council schedules a conversation with them to find out about their passions, interests and preferences for how they want to serve. “Members want to serve in different capacities,” said Rick.
“Some like a long-term commitment, say, for three years because they have the time, some people want to serve on a short-term task force, get it done and then back away, and some of them want to do something episodic.”
Then the assessment process begins to identify the best volunteering fit for the member. “Members don’t know about all the volunteering opportunities available,” said Rick. “So when we find someone who loves public speaking, who loves to go out and meet people, who loves to travel, we think, ‘Wait a minute, this is a chapter ambassador candidate.’”
- Does your association “lead with the vacancy” or “lead with the volunteer?” What are the pros and cons to each approach?
- Do you offer your members a variety of choices from long-term to short-term to episodic volunteering commitments? Have you ever inventoried and publicized the episodic (ad-hoc or micro-volunteering) volunteering opportunities at your association and/or chapters?
As Rick and his team learned more about chapter leader challenges, they developed new resources for them—and we’ll tell you about them in our next post.