Chapter Benchmarking Data is the New Bacon

Data is the new bacon.

Maybe you’ve heard that one before. At Association Component Exchange (CEX)Tanya McAdory-Coogan, one of the association execs on our CEX Experience Squad, told us she saw a t-shirt at the gym emblazoned with that tagline.

Data was on our minds that morning because Peter Houstle, co-founder and CEO of Mariner Management & Marketing, was about to start our day with a look at the 2019 Chapter Benchmarking Report. If you missed CEX, you can watch a replay of our recent webinar covering the same material: Climbing to the Top: Chapter Data That Drives Innovation.



The benchmarking process is the continuous analysis of present and historical data to do things like identify performance gaps, compare your progress (or regression) to previous time periods, and provide insight into your competitors and how they’re faring. There are multiple types of benchmarking that your chapter could use to measure and improve itself:

  • Functional benchmarking: Taking note of best practices from other organizations and associations, regardless of industry or sector.
  • Competitive benchmarking: Using data from competitors that helps you make decisions on how to navigate the market to compete within your industry.
  • Performance benchmarking: Looking inwards at your own performance to glean valuable insights on what you could be doing better and what you’re doing right.


Benchmarking is used all the time to make decisions. We benchmark or compare our possessions, like cars, when we look at cargo room, MPG, comfort, and more—so we can make smart decisions about future purchases. And then, insurance companies benchmark us to set rates for the premium on that new car.

We use internal benchmarking data to design the future. During the webinar, participants used the chat box to describe how they use chapter benchmarking data to:

  • Inform strategic planning, needs assessment, and decision-making.
  • Find out which chapters are effective and add to their mission.
  • Measure volunteer and member engagement.
  • Identify areas that need improvement across chapters.
  • Know what’s working and what’s not.
  • “See how far I’ve come.”


In a nutshell, benchmarking data helps drive chapter behavior. Chapters can see how their performance compares to others and make changes in response. You can spot chapters that need support from HQ and identify success stories to share with chapter leaders.

But, you must track the right data and measure the right things. Too many associations are still caught up in compliance reporting rather than strategic benchmarking that helps them support chapters.



177 associations participated in the Billhighway and Mariner Management chapter benchmarking survey, which was designed and conducted by Whorton Marketing & Research. Along with a comprehensive discussion of study results, the 2019 Chapter Benchmarking Report also includes chapter success stories on topics covered in the report as well as suggestions for additional reading.

Even though everyone knows how useful chapter data is, only 29% of the associations track chapter performance with a formal assessment tool—no change since the last time we did this study in 2016.

But, compared to 2016, more associations are tracking metrics that reflect chapter performance: recruitment, participation, and retention. Most of our webinar participants said they also track the number of chapter events.

In a related trend, affiliation requirements have changed since 2016. We saw a big jump in the number of associations requiring chapters to have full leadership rosters, a minimum number of members, and an annual report describing activities and achievements.

However, chapters aren’t meeting the expectations of associations. We noted gaps between the strategic importance of a chapter program, such as leadership development, and the effectiveness of that program. For example, associations said the strategic importance of leadership development is 4 on a 5-point scale, yet chapter effectiveness was rated 2.4, so that leaves a gap of 1.6, higher than the 1.0 gap in the 2016 study.

Quality control of chapter programs is the top concern for associations. Members rarely differentiate their association experience by ‘chapter’ vs. ‘national,’ it’s all one membership experience to them.



With a report like this in your hands, you can benchmark your chapter programs against the chapter programs of other associations. This knowledge can fuel a dialogue on the attributes of an effective chapter and healthy chapter/association relationship.

Use the benchmarking report to prompt conversation at your office:

  • What stands out?
  • What surprises you because it’s not at all your experience?
  • What prompts a “Why do we…” or “What if we…”?
  • What trend can you explore more?
  • What chapter management issue or opportunity can you dive into?


If your action or “explore” list becomes overwhelming, pick one of these five areas as a place to start:

  • Alignment: Think about the different ways a chapter can support National’s mission. They don’t have to be mini versions of National. What unique value can they provide?
  • Quality control: What’s the balance between acting like Big Brother looking over the chapter’s shoulder and getting validation of chapter value delivery? How can you determine how well a chapter is serving all its members? You shouldn’t only rely on a leader’s word, they’re naturally biased.
  • Compliance: How can you prevent creating an ‘us vs. them’ situation? How can your efforts be aspirational, not prescriptive, so you’re pulling, not pushing, in the same direction?
  • Data: How many systems or processes do you rely upon to get the chapter data you need? How can you integrate data collection while remaining sensitive to chapter autonomy?
  • Chapter ROI: How do you justify the resources allocated to chapters? How do you show the value of chapters to your association? We think this issue deserves special treatment, so read on, please…



Has your CEO or board questioned the value of chapters? You may have an intuitive sense that chapters are creating value but have a hard time putting a number on it. A CEX attendee described how her association’s CEO was satisfied with a soft sell on chapter value after visiting several of them. However, the CFO needed hard ($) numbers to be convinced.

Associations must monetize the fuzzy value of chapters. You know how much it costs to support chapters, but only 4% of our survey participants measure the value of chapters to the association—the return on investment. To assist you in determining that value, Mariner Management created a ROI Valuation Matrix. You can see how the matrix works in the e-book, Evaluating the Health of Your Association’s Chapter Program.

Don’t miss the success stories in our next post from three associations about their experience collecting and leveraging chapter data.


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About the author

Mark is known for his success in helping empower non-profit organizations across the U.S. and around the world to do more, multiply their impact, and grow. He regularly walks organizations through discovery processes that uncover internal obstacles, helping them identify and implement ways to more effectively run chapter-based organizations through process improvements and the use of innovative technologies. As a sought-after industry thought leader, he often speaks at leadership conferences, and regularly hosts educational roundtables and workshops in the non-profit sector. Mark has an unrelenting passion in helping solve problems for mission-based organizations so they can better focus on their mission and expand their impact across the nation and around the world.