What Does the Process of Chapter Restructuring Look Like?

In our last post, we identified ten warning signs of a chapter network in trouble. A dysfunctional chapter network is usually a symptom of a dysfunctional relationship. Instead of seeing and treating each other as partners, National and its chapters get stuck in a ‘parent-child’ relationship. Or, you see each other as rivals. The ‘us vs. them’ mentality takes hold.



Seeing this dynamic, consultant Jamie Notter provides a diagnosis for chapter networks in trouble:

“Maybe the very separate cultures we have nurtured over the years at the national and local levels are now creating a negative experience for our stakeholders. Maybe in order to succeed today, we need to do things differently. Maybe we will have to change the way we share information with the chapters, make decisions about programming, or even share resources.”

The Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) revamped their chapter model because of its “complicated membership structure” and “cumbersome dues structure.” Membership in ACCA was tied to membership in the local and state chapters.

However, ACCA only had chapters in about half the country and those had “hundreds of different dues variations.” What a mess.Kevin W. Holland, senior vice president of business operations and membership at ACCA, said. “It would be better for the local and state associations if they could focus on being a good local and state association and if the national association could focus on being a good national association, and we don’t handcuff contractors and say you have to join at all these different levels.”

Another association that decided to restructure their chapter model was the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP). “Our data was telling us that the primary reason people left the organization or did not renew after their first year was the chapter experience,” said IAAP’s president and CEO Jay Donohue, CMP, CAE.

Since 2002, Peggy Hoffman and Peter Houstle at Mariner Management have been talking about the need for associations to take a hard look at their chapter model. “And now, the idea is really entering the final phase as we see more and more organizations looking to evolve their chapter model,” said Peggy.

What do they think associations should consider? In an ASAE Collaborate discussion, Peter suggested “a unified single corporate structure where chapter administrative functions are all managed centrally.” This model “eliminates the need for volunteers to take on association management tasks for which they are usually unqualified.” He added, “This may have been viewed as an impossible task for an association a decade ago, but 21st century technologies have made this not only a feasible, but a far superior model for associations to develop and sustain a consistent, meaningful local presence.”



Whatever your reasons for wanting to restructure your chapters, make sure you co-design the new model with your chapters. Include chapter representatives from the start so the outcome is a win-win for National, chapters, and your members. If discussions become difficult, bring the conversation back to your common goal: what’s best for delivering value to your members.



Associations Now wrote: “To justify a change to the association’s fundamental structure, a board must have both a detailed understanding of its current state—strengths and weaknesses—and a clear vision for where it wants to go.”

First, look at National’s and the chapters’ responsibilities to members.

  • What products and services does National provide to members?
  • What do chapters provide to members?
  • Do you see any redundancies in value delivery?
  • Which party is better positioned to deliver that value?

Then, review your responsibilities to each other.

  1. What services and support is National responsible for providing to the chapters?
  2. What responsibilities do chapters have in the relationship?
  3. Where is each party coming up short with existing responsibilities?
  4. Should those responsibilities shift?
  5. Where do chapters need support so they can better deliver value to members and contribute to the National/chapter partnership?
  6. Where does National need support so it can better deliver value to members and better assist the chapters?

This process requires digging deep and continually asking “Why” until you get to the less obvious issue underlying the problem. Only then can you start seeking real solutions.

For example, let’s say vacant chapter leadership positions have become a pervasive issue.

  1. Why? We can’t find members to step up and serve.
  2. Why can’t you find them? We don’t have enough candidates with board or committee experience.
  3. Why aren’t there more candidates? Because the same people serve multiple terms. Members have either served already or they’re not interested.
  4. Why aren’t they interested? They don’t have time.
  5. Why is time an issue? The job requires too many meetings, too much work, and too many responsibilities.

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. The real problem is: leadership is a burden. What can you do to eliminate that problem? How do you restore time to leaders so they can focus on what’s important? How do you support chapters in building a leadership pipeline and repairing their leadership culture?



Your goal is to rethink and redefine the National/chapter relationship so each can leverage their strengths, maximize their limited resources, and better position themselves to take advantage of opportunities. Ultimately, the desired outcome is to deliver more value to members.

In this new relationship, each partner focuses on what they do best. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. You have to decide what a successful relationship looks like for your organizations. When a restructure is over, what do you want to achieve?

What does restructuring success look like for National? Perhaps you want to see National better positioned to provide administrative, technical, and consultative support to chapters in return for more accurate and reliable information about chapter members and activities. How will chapters be empowered in this new relationship? How do their responsibilities change because of this new support from National?

  • Chapter staff and volunteer leaders can focus on attracting and retaining members by providing valuable programming, instead of spending so much time on administrative tasks.
  • Chapters gain a voice at National, perhaps on a chapter advisory board.
  • Chapters have ready access to National staff expertise.

In turn, National benefits from membership growth, grassroots feedback and involvement, an increased customer base for non-competing National products and services, and a strong leadership (and staff) pipeline. In fact, some of the strongest Component Relations Professionals (CRPs) we’ve met at national associations have previously held chapter leadership roles.



The chapter model envisioned here and by Mariner Management is a more efficient model. But, more importantly, it is a more effective model because now chapter leaders can focus on what members value most—delivering educational and networking opportunities.

An inspiring vision of a shared future provides a catalyst for action and a common purpose. But what else do you need to consider as you go through the restructuring process?

How to Prepare for a Chapter Restructuring


You’ve seen the warning signs. Your chapter network and your relationship with your chapters is in trouble. You know it’s time to make changes. After evaluating your existing chapter model and envisioning options for a new one, you’re ready to move forward.

But, before any chapter restructuring discussions begin, the staff and leaders of the national association and its chapters must adopt a new perspective on the chapter-National relationship.

Traditionally, associations and their chapters have found themselves in a ‘parent-child’ relationship—parents and children in a dysfunctional family. Chapters often see National as an overbearing parent and National sees chapters as rebellious or ungrateful children.The National/chapter relationship must be a partnership. Each must acknowledge the contributions and strengths of the other and leverage those strengths to deliver value to members.

Of course, a shift like this in the cultural mindset of staff and leaders doesn’t happen overnight. Trust takes time to build. Actions are what count—not words.

Trust will build if national and chapter staff and leaders co-design their future together. “What we can do in that discovery process by having the chapters involved is we can understand what is truly not working or broken and make sure the system addresses that,” said Peggy Hoffman, president of Mariner Management.



National and chapters must start by agreeing on the goals for restructuring and on each’s role in the new relationship. Without this agreement, the future model and relationship will not be sustainable.

A still evolving story demonstrates the consequences of not having this agreement between a national association and its chapters. To better meet its fundraising goals, the Alzheimer’s Association decided to consolidate its chapters within the national organization. As a result, half the chapters disaffiliated so they could keep their independence.Why didn’t it go as planned? National goals and chapter goals weren’t aligned. An LA chapter member wrote, 


A Texas chapter member said,“By disaffiliating, we retain critical flexibility to respond quickly to community needs and we retain the authority to innovate and control our ongoing programs and service.” When developing a new chapter model, make sure both National and chapters are empowered to achieve their goals. A common vision with aligned goals is the only basis for a sustainable relationship and chapter network.



Building the foundation for a more trusting and healthy National/chapter relationship is the most critical aspect of the restructuring process, but you also have other essential work to do.



Is this new model financially viable for both National and its chapters?



Who will be responsible for the following processes? What role does National and its chapters play in:

  • Dues collection and disbursing
  • Prospective member data collection and sharing
  • New member data collection and sharing
  • Existing member data updates and sharing
  • Renewal process
  • Membership marketing



What type of technology is needed to support this new model and shared processes? Is National hosting that technology? Will chapter staff/leaders have access to that technology? Who is responsible for the security and backup of shared data?



How will you judge the health of this new chapter network and of individual chapters? How will you know whether this restructure helped? Make sure you track key performance indicators (KPIs) that show whether chapters are meeting mutually agreed upon goals. For help developing effective chapter KPIs, check out our on-demand webinar and/or workbook.

According to Mariner Management’s 2016 Chapter Benchmarking Study, only 5 percent of associations with chapters calculate the return on investment (ROI) of their chapter networks. If you want to calculate your ROI, you’ll need the data to do it. How will you collect that? The chapter KPI on-demand webinar can help you determine how to move forward with these efforts.



During exploratory discussions and throughout the restructuring process, you must keep the lines of communication open between National and chapter staff and leaders. Trust is based on regular, open communication.

Don’t let misunderstandings and rumors throw roadblocks in the path to restructuring.You must create a safe place for difficult conversations and encourage people to share the good, the bad, and the ugly. If festering issues are repressed, they will rear their ugly heads later to sabotage any progress.

Develop a communication plan for how you will roll out information to National and chapter staff, leaders, and members about the restructuring planning process and implementation.



You need a change management plan. Project leaders, champions, and communicators must understand why people resist change. The reasons for resistance could be warning signs of issues you hadn’t considered. But other motivations will be purely human:

  1. They’re not comfortable giving up control.
  2. Their institutional and/or personal ego is threatened.
  3. They’re anxious about the unknown and worried about future chapter viability.
  4. The mere idea of change stresses them out because they’re already overwhelmed with existing work.



Identify what revisions must be made to existing affiliation agreements and bylaws.

Official documentation is necessary but that’s not what holds together the chapter/National network. The real glue is the relationships between staff and volunteer leaders in the chapters and National—relationships built on trust, common purpose, and an understanding of each other’s value. National has the responsibility to take the first steps toward creating the conditions for this collaborative partnership with its chapters.


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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.