Thinking About a Virtual Community or Chapter?

Many of your members already live a virtual professional life. They work from home. They work while traveling. They communicate, research, network, learn, and interact with customers and patients online. Joining a virtual community or chapter is the natural thing to do.

In earlier posts in this series, we discussed the difference between a hybrid and virtual chapter, the benefits of a virtual chapter experience for members, and programs offered by virtual chapters.



A virtual chapter should provide the same sense of belonging and community as a local chapter. A virtual chapter is at its essence a virtual community. But before you take off with this idea, consider the following issues when planning the launch of a virtual chapter.



When Jeff Dansdill, a member of NIGP – The Institute for Public Procurement, moved to Hawaii, he missed belonging to a local chapter community like he did in Illinois and wanted to start a chapter in his new state. But meeting in person would be difficult with members and industry professionals spread across several islands. He realized that members in Alaska faced the same geographic issues, so he began talking to NIGP staff about starting a virtual chapter for Hawaii and Alaska.

Jennifer Steffan, chapter relations manager at NIGP, said.

“We asked Jeff and his group of members in Hawaii and Alaska to start thinking about a mission, a purpose. What was their goal and intent with this chapter? What could a virtual chapter look like?”


Besides being clear on the purpose of your virtual chapter, you must know whether your chapter is meeting that purpose. Identify goals you’d like the chapter to reach in the first, second, and third years—and, of course, feel free to tweak those second and third year goals once you’ve assessed the first year’s performance.

For example:

  • How many members will you recruit?
  • How many official chapter activities will be held?
  • What participation rates would you like for different types of activities?


Once you’ve identified goals, you can establish metrics or KPIs that will illustrate how well you’ve met those goals. Develop these goals and metrics in partnership with the members involved in organizing the chapter with you.



Start with a needs assessment of prospective members to find out what they need, want, and expect from a virtual chapter. What will they participate in? What will they pay for?

Decide what level of service your association can provide to a virtual chapter. What kind of bandwidth does your staff have? How will you divide responsibilities between staff and member volunteers?

  1. Who will select monthly meeting or webinar topics, find speakers, work with speakers, handle registration, and assign CEUs?
  2. Who will handle membership applications, dues payments, and renewals?
  3. Who will work with corporate partners on sponsorships?
  4. Who will handle member service issues?


Determine what technical resources the virtual chapter will need, for example, website (CMS), webinar hosting platform, email platform, financial management/dues processing software, and membership management software (AMS). You must also budget for technology maintenance, upgrades, and training.

As they do for all their chapters, NIGP provided seed money to help their virtual chapter with technology. But they soon realized the usual several hundred dollars wouldn’t be sufficient. Jennifer said, “We decided very quickly that our seed money had to be several thousand dollars so they could have a visual presence on the web when they went live instead of having to wait until they collected dues.”



Before committing any resources (time, money, technology), you need to gain the support of your leadership—the CEO and board. “Leadership support was extremely important,” said Jeff Dansdill, past president of NIGP’s virtual chapter. “Without [the CEO’s] executive backing, we probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere, so his and Jennifer’s involvement and excitement about our idea for a virtual chapter was critical to its success.”

Jennifer said, “I think the reverse side of that is true too. You need a champion within the volunteer realm as well—somebody who is willing to put in the amount of time and effort to start not only a chapter but something brand new. As important as it was for NIGP to buy into this, we really needed a volunteer or group of volunteers who were going to drive it. We couldn’t have done it on our own.”

The virtual chapter also received support from within the NIGP chapter community. The Rocky Mountain chapter walked them through virtual meeting and video conferencing tools. The Central Florida chapter provided sample documents and financial support. Encourage your chapters to share their knowledge and experience with the new virtual chapter team. They’ll benefit from watching and learning since the chapter experience will likely become more virtual for everyone in the future.


With everything going virtual these days, why not create a virtual chapter too? Virtual chapters provide a chapter experience to members who can’t or don’t want to participate in local chapters. However, like any new initiative, you must first consider all the challenges involved in launching and supporting a virtual chapter.

If you’ve been following this series of posts, you’ll recall we discussed in the first and second post the difference between a hybrid and virtual chapterbenefits of a virtual chapter experience for members, and programs offered by virtual chapters.

The third post focused on several issues to consider when planning the launch of a virtual chapter: chapter purpose, metrics, level of services and resources provided by National, leadership support, volunteer champions, and “sister” chapter support. But, wait, there’s more!

Benefits of the Joint Membership Model


Most virtual chapters require dual membership—the member must belong to the National association before joining the chapter. The virtual chapter can serve as an introduction to National membership.

Who qualifies for virtual chapter membership? The American Society of Appraisers (ASA) limits membership in their virtual chapter to members who are located more than 120 miles away from a geographic chapter, or belonged to a chapter that closed. Members who live within 120 miles of a geographic chapter can only join the virtual chapter as a second chapter.

Think about how you’ll handle special cases, for example, members who can’t drive, or whose schedules don’t allow them to participate in local chapter meetings. How inclusive or exclusive do you want to be?

Some associations are concerned that virtual chapters will end up competing for members with National and other chapters. If you require dual membership, National shouldn’t have any worries. However, it’s a different story for your chapters. Will they see a virtual chapter as “cannibalizing” their membership?

Decide what’s most important: giving members the ability to choose the association experience they need and desire, or giving in to chapters’ territorial wishes. These concerns will diminish when local chapters become true hybrid chapters providing both a virtual and in-person experience to members.

NIGP’s New, Holistic Approach to Leadership Development


“To start any type of chapter whether it’s virtual or face-to-face, there has to be that drive as well as a group of people who are willing to commit to it,” said Jeff Dansdill, past president and founding member of the virtual chapter for Hawaiian and Alaskan members of NIGP – The Institute for Public Procurement.

Scott Wadle, program director of council and chapter affairs at the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), said.

“Having the right tools and providing a clear division of responsibilities are key to the success of any organization, but this has proven especially true in the case of our virtual chapters.”

Like local chapters, virtual chapters need a sound leadership structure—officers, board of directors, and committees or task forces. Take a look at this list of committees for NIRI’s virtual chapter—that’s a lot of work for members who don’t meet face-to-face. Communication takes on more importance in these circumstances, which is why you must choose the right collaboration platform. Make sure everyone stays in the loop and understands the need for transparency.

Building a virtual community presents a different set of communication, collaboration, and programming challenges than experienced by local chapter leaders. You’ll have to help virtual chapter leaders figure out this new online working environment. As more chapters realize they must offer a hybrid experience to members, what you learn from your virtual chapter will help other chapters succeed in this new environment.


Virtual chapters also need assistance building their leadership pipeline and planning for leadership succession. Help them identify and nurture emerging leadership talent through a strong volunteering program.

Every member benefits from the transformative impact of volunteering. Assist the virtual chapter in identifying microvolunteering opportunities for members who don’t want to or can’t commit time to committee service. For example, virtual chapter members can moderate online discussions, write webinar recaps, reach out to new members, and share external content in discussion forums.

Leverage your event and content assets


A virtual community or chapter, like a local chapter, depends on sponsors (corporate partners) for programming support. Help virtual chapters identify and market sponsorship opportunities. NIRI’s virtual chapter lists these sponsorship opportunities on their website:

  • Create and present content, such as webinars, articles, and tip sheets
  • Host topic-focused conference calls
  • Support annual in-person events


Virtual chapters face many of the same challenges as local chapters, including member engagement. Jeff Dansdill from NIGP’s virtual chapter said, “Some of the challenges we face are no different than other chapters—getting involvement and keeping people interested. People are busy today, so showing the value of being involved and being part of our organization is always a challenge but something we’re up to.”


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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.