How to Train, Support & Inspire at Your Chapter Leader Conference

Chapter leaders are extraordinary folks. These volunteers take on chapter leadership and management responsibilities in addition to their duties at work, home, and elsewhere. Can they count on your association to provide the resources they need during their leadership tenure?

Chapter leaders also need a community of peers they can count on for support and inspiration. But how can they develop those relationships when chapters are hundreds of miles apart? You can help by providing everything they need in one place: a chapter leadership conference.



A chapter leadership conference is an investment in the future of your chapters. When you dedicate time and money to training chapter leaders, you set them and their chapters up for success—and they know it.

Plus, you give them the opportunity to build relationships and a community with their peers. After the conference, volunteer leaders can stay in touch, share advice, and support each other during challenging times.

You give national staff and volunteer leaders the opportunity to develop and deepen relationships with chapter leaders. The conference also serves as a training camp. Your ‘scouts’ (national staff and leaders) can spot leadership recruits who could move from the minors (chapters) to the major league (national).

At the conference, you can listen to the stories of chapter leaders and better understand their strengths and weaknesses. You can identify how to better support chapters in delivering value to members, and how chapters can help your association achieve its goals.



Chapter leaders may not have sufficient funds (their chapter’s or their own) to attend the conference. Consider these options:

  1. Full subsidy: National covers conference, travel, and hotel expenses.
  2. Partial subsidy: National covers conference and hotel expenses, and chapters pay for travel and other expenses.
  3. Matching funds: National matches what the chapter allocates.
  4. Scholarships: National provides full or partial scholarships based on ability to pay or other criteria.
  5. Sponsorships: Affiliate/associate members pay expenses for one or more chapter leaders.



Before putting together your conference program, first identify learner outcomes: what do chapter leaders need to know how to do when they get back to ‘work.’ Keep these goals firmly in mind while planning the educational program.



Session content should align with chapter and national critical pain points. A survey will help you uncover chapter priorities. Ask chapter leaders to self-identify as a new or veteran chapter leader and to rate a selection of possible session topics on a scale of 1 to 5 or “n/a.”



Give leaders the opportunity to describe their most critical chapter pain points. What prevents their chapter from growing? What’s causing members to not renew? What gets in the way of them doing their best job as leaders? Keep the survey brief and focused on conference content. If you need feedback on other issues, save those requests for another day.



A conference advisory board made up of former and existing chapter leaders can also help you understand what chapter leaders need to succeed. Make sure some of those board members have also been involved in national leadership so that perspective is part of the discussion.



One for new and one for veteran chapter leaders. New leaders need to know the basics, for example, how to develop budgets, create and understand financial reports, and comply with federal and state regulations. Veteran leaders may have mastered those financial responsibilities, but don’t assume they have—their survey responses will reveal their needs.



And please, don’t spend valuable conference time on passive, informational sessions. For example, don’t dedicate an hour to a review of legislative and regulatory issues. Chapter leaders can read, watch videos, or participate in webcasts about those issues at home on their own time. Focus on topics chapter leaders can actively learn together in person.

To ensure you cover the essentials, take a cue from the National Speakers Association. Their conference focused on the “Five Ms” of chapter leadership: management, marketing, meetings, membership, and money. Here’s a sampling of topics from other chapter leadership conferences:

  • Budgeting basics
  • Chapter dashboards
  • Event contracts
  • Business partnerships (sponsorship/exhibitor sales)
  • Marketing 101
  • Chapter website must-haves
  • Leadership development
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Educational program development
  • Member onboarding and engagement
  • High-performing boards and board self-evaluation

And, a topic near and dear to our heart: technology strategy.



When it’s time to find speakers, don’t forget industry partners. We’ve presented our Chapter Secret Sauce session on technology strategy at several chapter leadership conferences. This session addresses chapter pain points, prompts lively discussions, and leads to changed behavior and processes.


Chapter leaders are incredibly dedicated volunteers, but they’re not association management experts. They can be easily overwhelmed by your association’s expectations and the responsibilities of leadership.

Ensure your chapter leaders have the knowledge and resources they need to succeed by inviting them to a chapter leadership conference.

The conference can provide the training they need to keep their chapter afloat, help your association deliver value to members, and work with you to achieve mutual goals. Plus they can start building a community of peers whom they can count on for support and inspiration.



After identifying session topics, it’s time to find the best people to teach, facilitate, and/or participate on panels. Cast a wide net for these experts, including:

  • Former and current chapter leaders.
  • Leaders from other associations who have addressed similar challenges—ask your network and fellow ASAE/SAE members for referrals.
  • Business partners, vendors, and/or consultants.

Identify and invite national staff who would benefit from developing closer relationships with chapter leaders, and whom chapter leaders would benefit from knowing better. Ask national staff and industry partners to participate in ‘talk to an expert’ sessions or ‘office hours.’ In these sessions, chapter leaders can get help with legislative, regulatory, legal, financial, technology, membership, event planning, marketing, and communications issues.

If you’re planning new programs or initiatives that need buy-in from chapters, invite staff who are leading those efforts. Identify other industry partners who can help you obtain chapter buy–in for new processes or technologies—that’s one of the reasons we’re often invited to chapter leadership conferences.



Schedule time for education and networking. Help chapter leaders develop relationships that will make them feel like they’re surrounded by an extended support team of fellow chapter leaders and national staff. These relationships will be as valuable as the knowledge they take home.

Include interactive activities in each session’s design. When information is recalled and applied in group exercises, it’s more likely to stick. Attendees learn more from ‘guides on their side’ than a ‘sage on the stage.’ Session plans should include discussion, idea-sharing, problem-solving, and other peer-to-peer exercises.

When programs, products, and projects are on the session agenda, include a discussion about metrics. Chapter leaders need to know what’s expected of them; how their chapter’s performing; how their chapter’s programs, products, and projects are performing; and whether these new (or old) initiatives are worth their limited time and money.

Give chapter leaders the resources they’ll need to put their new knowledge in action. They’re too busy for grand ideas that take 18 months to ramp up. Break down session takeaways into simple actionable steps they can begin implementing when they get home. Help them turn pages of notes into a practical to-do list.

  • Prepare worksheets that break down projects into reasonable ‘next steps.’
  • Provide timelines to help them stay on schedule with large projects or events.
  • Help them find accountability partners—fellow leaders of chapters with similar size, structure, challenges, and/or goals.
  • Show them where to find additional resources on your website.

Schedule a session at the end of the conference to help them focus on turning ideas into action—we did this at our Association Component Exchange (CEX) event earlier this month. As participants work in groups, they discuss the people who need to be involved in implementing a new idea, obstacles they may encounter along the way, and ideas to overcome those obstacles.



If you have to rely on email to convince chapter leaders to get behind a new initiative or get on board with a big change, the chances of them immediately rallying around your idea are pretty slim. But if you talk with them face-to-face at the conference about a new idea or process, the odds start rising in your favor.

When pitching new ideas to chapter leaders, make sure you acknowledge the natural fear of change. Before making your pitch, discuss the changing conditions faced by all associations and chapters. This disruption and change will create winners and losers. Some associations won’t make it and some chapters won’t make it. Although change can be uncomfortable, it’s a necessary part of your association’s and chapters’ evolution.

Hold a town hall conversation where national and chapter leaders and staff can discuss:

  • How outside changes are affecting your association and chapters.
  • How chapter leaders feel about these changes.
  • What scares them about these changes.
  • Where they see opportunities if they adapt to these changes.
  • What could happen if they don’t adapt.

A conversation about disruption and change is worth having whether you’re pitching a new idea or not. But if you do want to pitch a new idea, you could paint a picture of what the future could look like if your idea is successfully implemented. Discuss together ways to transition to that better place and the obstacles that stand in the way. You can then offer the new idea as one solution while also considering others that emerge.



Besides going home with ideas and worksheets, you want chapter leaders to leave with good memories. But, once your chapter leaders get back to work, a good deal of what they’ve learned at your conference will be forgotten unless you help them make it stick.



Post recordings (videos) of educational sessions in the chapter leader resources section of your website – if you don’t have one, that’s something you should address immediately. You could also use these videos in the onboarding program for new chapter leaders. Use your learning management system (LMS), if you have one, to host educational resources and track new leaders’ progress through orientation.



Ask them to share their takeaways and action plans in your online chapter leader community or forum. Or, ask them to share those ideas with you, supplement them with additional resources, and post a curated selection on the resources section of your website. Send out checklists and advice in the weeks and months following the conference as a reminder to take action.



Keep listening. Check in with leaders individually and in groups to find out how they’re applying new knowledge and handling common challenges. Ask for their input on issues and ideas.



Continue to help them connect with each other. The more you know about individual chapter and leader concerns and success stories, the better you can identify leaders who can help each other. Consider organizing online mastermind groups where chapter leaders can help each other work through challenges and hold each other accountable for professional and personal growth.

A chapter leadership conference gives you the opportunity to inspire volunteer leaders, strengthen a shared sense of purpose, and remind them of your shared mission. We’d be happy to discuss our experience at chapter leadership conferences—we’ve presented at several—and the types of sessions we could facilitate at your conference—free of charge!


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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.