How to Retain Chapter Leaders by Preventing Burnout & Turnover

I’m not sure I could do it. When I think about the time and energy devoted by chapter leaders to their volunteer “job,” all I can say is… Respect. I bet many of you feel the same way.

But sadly, the leadership experience doesn’t always end well as some of these generous volunteers burn out before the end of their term. Is there any way to prevent this outcome so your association can retain chapter leaders?

It’s especially frustrating if your association invests resources in teaching chapters how to recruit volunteers and build a leadership pipeline. But, leadership turnover is a strong possibility if you haven’t created the conditions, provided the tools, and encouraged the tactics that make their job easier.


#1 Set Expectations Before & During Onboarding

Before they accept a leadership position, make sure these members understand and buy into the strategic objectives of their chapter and National. Chapter leaders must support National’s priorities.

  • Chapter Responsibilities: Be extremely clear on the chapter leader’s roles and responsibilities. They should know what they’re getting into and not be surprised by your expectations.
  • National Expectations: Both sides should know what to expect from the other. Spell out National’s chapter-related responsibilities and resources. For example, chapters can look to National for advice and tools to help them with chapter administration.
  • Open Communication: However, chapters must also understand that National doesn’t have unlimited resources, and often struggles to meet the different needs of its diverse chapters. Talk about the problems that could result if chapters don’t comply with branding standards or reporting requirements.
  • Group Discussion: Discuss these touchy topics in individual or group onboarding sessions. If you don’t, misunderstandings will result. You may hear complaints that new leaders inherited from their predecessors. Talk about these grievances and come up with a way to make the situation better for both of you.


Besides giving chapter leaders the information they need to lead and manager their chapters, you should also teach them how not to be a chapter superhero or martyr.


Leaders burn out because they try to do too much. To prevent burnout and turnover, teach chapter leaders how to share the workload.

Provide ongoing training for officers, board directors, and committee chairs on how to break up and delegate tasks, make meetings meaningful and enjoyable, and recruit volunteers who will share the work with them.

Chapter over-achievers are a liability for your association, not a blessing. They stand in the way of other members who want a taste of service and leadership.


Busy volunteers are more likely to pay attention to your helpful resources if you deliver them consistently and reliably. If you host a best practices webinar for chapter leaders at 4 p.m. every first Thursday of the month, they’ll put it on their schedule.

  • If they expect to receive the Membership Minute every Friday around 3 p.m., they’ll make it a habit to take one minute to read it.
  • If every third Monday they receive a special newsletter filled with chapter success stories (meaning: ideas they can steal), they’ll always find time to open that email.


#2 Provide a Chapter Resource Center


Create a resource center on your website where chapter leaders can search for solutions to the challenges they’re facing. Include success stories collected from your chapter network, links to external resources, and resources created by your staff.

For example, create tip sheets about finding a speaker for chapter events, writing compelling email subject lines, and onboarding new members.


Post materials and recordings from training programs.

For example, the Ontario Real Estate Association published a series of videos about different aspects of the leadership experience.


Put together a chapter playbook full of best practices. Update it regularly with proven ideas from other chapters so it becomes a collective and growing knowledge bank. Topics could include running a panel, putting together sponsorships, and getting local media attention.


Many associations host annual chapter leadership summits where volunteer leaders learn new skills and build relationships with their peers. Ask new leaders to come in a day ahead for a new chapter leader boot camp.

After boot camp, continue to treat the “class of 2019” as a group so they experience their first year of leadership together. Remember, relationships are the best benefit of volunteering and membership.



#3 Listen to & Council Chapter Leaders



Regular communication keeps chapter leaders in the loop, helps them feel supported and valued, and prevents misunderstandings. Give chapter leaders a voice at National. Ask for their feedback on national plans, strategies, and issues as well as chapter concerns.

The Association for Vascular Access established an Advisory Task Force to provide their board with the chapter perspective.



Find out where chapters are experiencing the biggest pains so you can address them. Survey new and experienced leaders to learn how you can help. Even better, hit the road. Having facetime with chapter leaders can improve the relationship dynamic too.

When chapter leaders go silent, burnout is often to blame. Find out what’s going on with them. They may just need someone to validate their concerns and acknowledge their frustrations. Remind them about their contributions to the professional community. Suggest a collaborative approach to solving their problems.



Volunteers must not feel alone. They need to know you’re as invested in their work and chapter as they are—and that you’ve got their back.

Make sure you haven’t set them up for failure. Is their job too big? Just because their predecessors finished their terms doesn’t mean the workload is viable. Previous leaders might have been a martyr or superhero leader.



Sorry to say, but sometimes you’re the problem. For example, if a new chapter leader presents a good idea that was shot down because your association isn’t comfortable trying new things, they’ll become discouraged and may not stick around long.

In Marketing General Incorporated’s (MGI) Association Innovation Benchmarking Report, the biggest obstacle to innovation was getting people to accept a degree of failure. Maybe it’s time to redefine your definition of failure. Isn’t lack of innovation or the inability to try new things and reinvent processes actually a failure? Perhaps associations should start rewarding volunteers that try to make a difference, even if they fail.

72 percent of MGI’s survey participants said their association didn’t have any reward or recognition for innovation.



Don’t allow mediocre volunteers to stay in power. Tolerating low-performance is a serious demotivator for everyone else. The research says that low performers dampen morale, initiative, and motivation, and contribute to a culture where mediocrity is accepted.

Mediocrity discourages good volunteers from staying involved and stepping up. When they see people sitting back and not accomplishing much, why should they sacrifice their time?

Peggy Hoffman at Mariner Management & Marketing suggests combatting mediocrity by setting performance standards and having a regular (yearly or bi-annually) check-in and evaluation of how each chapter leader is doing.



National volunteer leaders get a lot of attention, but chapter leaders are often left out of the spotlight despite the influence they have on the membership experience. Think about ways to thank chapter leaders for their service, for example, discounts on National events and products, or VIP treatment during conferences.

When it comes to rewards, don’t condone superhero behavior. Reward only the chapter leaders who are truly leaders—the ones who provide others with the opportunity to get involved with leadership.

A healthy approach to chapter leadership will prevent leadership burnout and turnover. Provide the support and resources chapter leaders need to succeed. Encourage relationship building among peers. And, most importantly, build a leadership culture based on inviting others to share the workload and experience.

Surveying Chapter Leaders Could Prevent Volunteer Burn Out

Volunteers are often the lifeline of associations, especially when it comes to the chapter and local levels. They take time out of their busy lives and dedicate it to your mission, to engage others and help your association be successful. There are a few ways your national association can step in and help set them up for success.

Ask them what they need! How are you supposed to provide them with all the proper tools, templates and support if you don’t even know what they’re struggling with or what they’re trying to accomplish? Learn what they need to get the job done. Asking for their opinion and insight is great for building trust and strong communication between the national association and chapters.


Is Everyone on the Same Page?

Survey to better understand what strategic initiatives and objectives chapters are putting their resources towards. If a volunteer is bending over backwards to push advocacy, but membership surveys show that members really want networking, then there is a disconnect.

There is even a third variable here, if national is primarily focused on events and networking opposed to advocacy then chapter efforts aren’t aligning with national. This misalignment needs to be addressed (and the proper tools, training and direction needs to be provided).

Need to improve communication between National and Chapters? Try some of these online document sharing tools.


Is Volunteer Time Well Spent?

Volunteers didn’t sign up to manage spreadsheets, be data entry clerks or be technical support for the member portal. They signed up because they believe in the mission and want to learn new skills to leverage in their careers or day-to-day lives.

As the national association, you have the ability to provide tools that automate the busy work and make it more of a quick housekeeping item, rather than their primary responsibility as a volunteer.


Did you know?

  • 77% of respondents of the Multi-Chapter Benchmarking Survey* cited that national doesn’t provide any type of standard website templates or design standards.
  • 37% of respondents cited that each chapter has their own member database
  • 35% of respondents stated that chapters are solely responsible for recruitment


*Multi-Chapter Benchmarking Survey. Wild Apricot. 


How Can You Provide Better Support to Your Chapters?

Leverage some of these free or low-cost tools below to start asking your chapter leaders how you can help them.


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About the author

Charlotte Muylaert is the former Marketing Leader at Billhighway and greekbill. She oversaw the marketing and branding strategies for 10 years in the fraternal and association markets.