What’s the Point of Chapter Benchmarking?

Many of us enjoy reading benchmarking reports but managing a chapter benchmarking project is a whole ‘nother story. It’s a big job, but it’s worth the effort. We don’t say that lightly. We’re quite familiar with benchmarking thanks to our biannual Chapter Benchmarking Report. Just the phrase “chapter benchmarking” calls to mind our collaborator on the report, Peter Houstle of Mariner Management.

We had a nice long chat with Peter recently about chapter benchmarking, specifically about the kind of data to collect from chapters so your team and your chapter leaders (whether volunteers or staff) can measure their performance against chapters of similar size, budget, location, or other characteristics.



First, we will address the question on everyone’s mind. Let’s say you collect a lot of chapter data and share it with chapter leaders, then what? How do they use it? How do you use it?



Data can be magical if you know how to use its powers for good. Data can help you shake off the complacency you might see in some of your chapters. Although the pandemic shook many of them out of their ruts, surprisingly, some decided to just wait it out. As we emerge from the other side, where do your chapters stand now?

  • Who has a healthy balance sheet?
  • Engaged members?
  • A strong program portfolio?
  • A high retention rate?
  • Who’s helping your collective community and who’s not pitching in?


Benchmarking illuminates what’s really going on. Benchmarking data points out where chapters need to improve performance and where they’re falling short of the standard. They can’t help but see the need to reconsider the status quo, prioritize different things, professionalize their operations, and/or change how they do business.

Benchmarking data gives chapter leaders the impetus and excuse they need to play bigger—to ask for more from their volunteers and members, and give them more in exchange. The data may show the need for a different type of leadership culture: volunteer leaders who steer the ship, not just let it coast along, and who follow a strategic plan, not the whimsy of the current president.

Benchmarking data feeds into the competitive egos of chapter leaders. Many of them won’t be able to resist the comparison game. They want to bring the results out of the board room or office and share their high marks with their members and chapter leader peers.

At the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG), chapter self-assessments tap into their chapter leaders’ competitive nature. Chapters do this self-assessment as part of the Chapter of the Year awards program. They know they must adhere to best practices if they want to win in their chapter-size category.

The self-assessments have also led to a better dialogue between ACG and its chapters. Instead of having to pester chapters about compliance issues, the chapters call ACG to find out how they can improve their practices. The result is a total shift in the chapter leader mindset and conversations.

High-performing chapters win more than the comparison game. Because of the pandemic, many chapters have taken on a virtual identity with their boundaries no longer limited by geography. They can compete virtually with other chapters and with HQ—and that doesn’t have to be a terrible thing. For example, the Austin chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) hosted an online course that attracted attendees from chapters all over the country. Austin shared the registration revenue with those chapters. Their success encouraged other chapters to form education partnerships. High-performing chapters figure out how to win market share and revenue, and other chapters often follow their lead.



AGC wants to ensure its member firms consistently receive “a full range of services” wherever they work. With the assistance of Mariner Management, they developed a chapter self-assessment tool that measures performance and shows chapters where and how they can improve their practices. Benchmarking data helps Christi Beatty, vice president of chapter services and member engagement at AGC, shine a light on high-performing chapters—those with bright spots to share. It also helps her identify low-performing chapters, so her team can intercede, coach them, or pair them with a chapter leader who can provide guidance. Benchmarking data can also validate the need for additional chapter resources, such as chapter leader training and/or technology that facilitates data-sharing.

Software, like Billhighway, gives you access to chapter data that allows you to benchmark, understand the correlations between chapter activities and performance, and share those findings with your chapters. This data can spark the impetus for a new type of cooperation between your association and your chapter network. For example, if you spot an issue that’s holding back many chapters from higher performance, you can provide the support or resources that will help them improve. If your association is unable to provide those resources, you can help facilitate progress by bringing chapter bright spots to everyone’s attention and helping chapter leaders find support in each other.



Peter observed that many associations collect chapter data and information that measures compliance with chapter affiliation requirements but doesn’t have anything to do with performance. You have to measure what matters. The benchmarking data you collect must be tied to goals and desired change.

Metrics must be specific and measurable. “Getting better” and “creating more value” won’t cut it; they’re wishes, not metrics. Instead, think in terms of numbers and percentages.

Multi-ethnic team of creative millenials collaborating on a brainstorm project


When you ask chapters for benchmarking data, you don’t want to request the same old compliance checklist information. Instead, you want data that truly reflects chapter performance and progress toward mutual goals. As we mentioned in the first post in this series, this type of benchmarking data helps chapters improve performance, helps you prioritize the use of your association’s limited resources, and helps your association improve its relationship with chapters.

When considering a big project like this, it’s helpful to see how another association is doing it. We talked with Peter Houstle, CEO of Mariner Management, and Christi Beatty, vice president of chapter services and member engagement at the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), who are working together on AGC’s chapter benchmarking project.



In discussing their experience so far, Christi shared some of the lessons learned. We believe these lessons are five prerequisites for a successful project.



AGC’s business plan illustrates the essential role and value of chapters to the association. One of the plan’s four pillars is “National Chapter Relationship and Member Engagement.” The AGC board, according to Christi, is super excited about this project. HQ support? Check.

If your board still needs convincing, explain how the impact of the benchmarking project will help your association achieve its strategic goals, for example:

  • Increase the value delivered to members at the chapter level.
  • Recruit new members.
  • Generate more revenue for the association through the dues and purchases of these new members and engage existing members.
  • Develop volunteer leaders for HQ’s leadership pipeline.


You’ve got HQ on your side, now what about your chapters? This is where things get interesting. Your chapter benchmarking project could end up failing if chapters don’t have any sense of ownership in it. That’s likely to happen if HQ initiates the project and expects chapters to comply. That’s not what happened at AGC.

AGC chapters are independent entities in a federated model and are managed by staff executive directors. Nothing in the bylaws compels them to do a benchmarking project for AGC’s benefit. That’s why the project had to be the chapter executives’ idea.

The AGC Executive Leadership Council (ELC) is a membership group composed of executive directors from the 89 chapters with a governing board of ELC members. As they approached the start of another three-year strategic planning cycle, the board wanted to take a different approach by building continuous improvement into the plan. They chose Mariner Management to help them. The benchmarking project, starting with a chapter self-assessment, is an essential element of the ELC’s strategic plan.



A project like this needs champions who can convince reluctant chapter executives to participate. A few ELC members, who had been around for a while, helped create the first self-assessment. These strong association managers were known and respected by their peers. They sold the idea by spreading a message to their peers: yes, this self-assessment is optional, but the ELC believes high-performing people are always self-assessing. This appeal to the ego worked with this particular set of leaders and may work with yours too.



Unlike many chapter benchmarking projects, AGC’s is funded by the chapters themselves through their ELC dues. The ELC budget paid for Mariner’s services and the Dynamic Benchmarking platform. If chapter funding is not possible at your association, consider sharing the expenses or finding sponsors to help subsidize the project.



Chapter benchmarking projects often start with a checklist: Does your chapter do this or not? The problem with this approach, says Peter, is you’re not measuring what matters. Now, before we get to the metrics that matter, if you’re stuck with a checklist, it can still be useful if you encourage chapters to use the resulting benchmarking data in a new way.

If a chapter doesn’t do something that most other chapters do, it gives them the opportunity to ask, “Is that activity important to us?” On the other hand, if they’re doing something others aren’t, they can evaluate whether they really need to continue doing it. This compare/contrast exercise is useful for questioning assumptions.

Peter encourages chapters to take advantage of the pandemic zeitgeist. When change is in the air, everything can be up for review. You can’t assume the way you did something is still the best way. After the year we’ve all been through, everyone is knowingly or unknowingly experiencing changes in habits, preferences, interests, and values. Take a hard look at the effectiveness of traditional activities and ask if they still serve members or fulfill the mission.

Another problem with checklists is they’re not prioritized. Chapter leaders, especially during stressful conditions, aren’t questioning whether the checklist items matter. They don’t always do what’s most important, instead they do what’s easiest. The key to effective chapter self-assessment and performance benchmarking is measuring what matters.

What Does a Well-Designed Chapter Self-Assessment Tool Look Like?


Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of a chapter benchmarking project, starting with a well-designed chapter self-assessment tool. Peter Houstle, CEO of Mariner Management, worked with Christi Beatty, vice president of chapter services and member engagement at the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), and some of AGC’s chapter executives on this tool.

In our last post, we discussed why the usual chapter compliance checklist isn’t sufficient for a performance benchmarking project. We also described the impetus behind AGC’s chapter benchmarking project, particularly the role played by chapter executives. In this post, we’ll review the first of the four elements of AGC’s chapter benchmarking project.



Data is just one piece of a chapter benchmarking project. A successful and sustainable approach to chapter benchmarking includes not only the assessment exercise itself but also what you and your chapters do with the results. Through that holistic lens, the AGC project includes four elements:

  • Chapter self-assessment
  • Data-sharing
  • Resource library
  • Chapter leader training and development



Before developing a chapter assessment, Peter says you must identify and prioritize the elements that define effectiveness. The self-assessment exercise must result in scoring and reports that let chapters know where to focus their energy. Some of the areas you measure might be traditional checklist items, but some should be new performance-focused items.

The board members of AGC’s Executive Leadership Council (ELC)—the dues-paying membership group for AGC’s 89 chapter staff executives—already had a chapter checklist but they wanted to build a tool that would serve as a carrot for improved performance. The ELC board’s mindset on checklists had changed. They weren’t interested in the prescriptive assessment so often used by associations that measures items such as the number of people sent by the chapter to the national conference. They wanted a tool that measured chapter performance.

Peter suggested they only score the things that matter. Sure, ask about compliance checklist items, but only score the short list of things that are true indicators of performance, for example, member recruitment and retention, market penetration, non-dues revenue sources, and gross receipts.

AGC developed KPIs in five areas of association management:

  • Operations and Administration
  • Communications
  • Membership and Engagement
  • Member Services
  • Leadership and Volunteers

In each area, the self-assessment asked for details about several KPIs. For example, under the Leadership and Volunteers area, the questions concerned:

  • Strategic planning (frequency of planning sessions and plan reviews, succession plan)
  • Board and officer terms (average current terms, term limits)
  • Board policies (frequency of policy reviews, leadership manual)
  • New leadership (vetting process for officers and board, consideration for diversity and competencies, board orientation)

The scores for each of the KPIs fall into four levels:

  • Aspiring – below 55%
  • Emerging – 55-69%
  • Managing – 70-84%
  • Optimizing – 85-100%


75% of AGC’s chapters took advantage of the new self-assessment tool. Christi said not to worry about getting full participation; you only need a decent sample size. In AGC’s case, those who complete the self-assessment get access to not only their scorecard but also a 24-page guidebook. The guidebook shows them how they scored in each of the KPI areas and describes best practices to follow to raise those scores as well as links to additional resources on the AGC website.



You could also invite chapters to do a self-assessment as part of your chapter awards program. For each category, provide a list of best practices. Ask chapters to score themselves and describe how they’re meeting those performance standards. Offer this self-assessment to all chapters, even the ones who do not apply for an award, so they can see how they compare and what they can aspire to.

At the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG), chapters rated their performance on each item in the award category checklist. By doing so, they could see where they could perhaps do better, according to best practices. For example, if their check signing policy wasn’t following best practices, the chapter leader realized they needed to change that policy—or they’d never win the chapter of the year award.

It gets better. Chapter leaders started reaching out to ACG staff to find out how they could raise their score in the different award categories. Instead of ACG having to tell chapters what they needed to do to comply, the chapters took the initiative to change. At their annual conference, ACG highlighted best practices and programs from award-winning chapters, so high-performance behavior was shared and spread throughout the network.

As you can see from AGC’s and ACG’s examples, collecting benchmarking data is only the first step in a chapter benchmarking project. Now, the transformative work begins: sharing that data with your chapters, providing resources to help them improve performance, and supporting their growth with chapter leader training and development—the topics of the next and last post in this series.


Gathering and sending benchmarking data to your association is a big ask of chapter leaders, especially when they’re volunteers or a staff of one or two. But if they understand the benefits of participating in this project, they will be more likely to cooperate.

We spoke with Peter Houstle, CEO of Mariner Management, and Christi Beatty, vice president of chapter services and member engagement at the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), about the chapter benchmarking project they’re working on together. Our previous post described the self-assessment tool used last year by 75% of AGC chapters, a great participation rate for the new tool’s launch.

In this post, we’re returning to AGC and the remaining three phases of a successful chapter benchmarking project: sharing that data with your chapters, providing resources to help them improve performance, and supporting their growth with chapter leader training and development.



The reason for AGC’s high participation rate can be traced back to a project prerequisite we discussed in a previous post: chapter ownership. In rolling out the self-assessment, the board members of AGC’s Executive Leadership Council (ELC)—the dues-paying membership group for AGC’s 89 chapter staff executives—spread the message that “your peers developed this tool and put together this scorecard and guidebook for you.”

The ELC purchased software from Dynamic Benchmarking that gave chapter leaders access to benchmarking data and reports. They can go onto the platform and compare their practices and performance to similar chapters. For example, they can see anonymized data for chapters in a metropolitan area with a $2M budget and observe how different activities led to different results. The WIIFM was clear. However, only chapters that completed the self-assessment had access to the results.

Peter said one of the biggest barriers to taking on a chapter benchmarking project is the logistical challenge of collecting chapter data. Usually, the HQ’s AMS/CRM isn’t integrated with the databases and accounting software used by chapters. However, as you can see from AGC’s example, even if data isn’t integrated, you can find solutions like Dynamic Benchmarking.

Billhighway is another solution. Because a chapter’s financial activity (including payments, dues, registrations, and purchases) flows through our software, you can capture all the chapter performance, financial, and member engagement data you need.

HQ’s relationship with chapter leaders and the level of trust that chapter leaders have in your association is another common barrier. Timing worked in AGC’s favor here. In the last five years, half the chapter executives retired. Christi said the new generation of executives is willing to seek information and ask for help.

AGC is using the self-assessment tool to find the bright spots in high-performing chapters, for example, a membership recruitment or retention strategy, safety program, or PR program. They’re helping these bright spot chapters tell their story so other chapters can copy their success.

These stories along with the best practices described in the scorecard’s guidebook are helping the chapters with middling scores to improve their performance. Christi is helping some of the lowest-performing chapters, the ones who were brave enough to be transparent, find the resources they need.

Christi noted that benchmarking brings about a time of uncomfortable reckoning for many chapters when they see where they don’t measure up. For example, many chapters don’t measure market penetration and they don’t want to measure it because the news won’t be good. A metric like this touches a nerve, one that’s attached to pride and ego.

AGC doesn’t push them one way or the other. This is the chapter executive’s tool; they decide what they want to do with it, and that decision is the chapter leader’s business. They could throw the results out or share them with staff and figure out together how they’ll improve. Or they could be brave enough to share the results with their board, showing them where they’re doing well and where they could use some work—a handy business case for an investment in technology or additional staff.



AGC provides resources on their website for chapter leaders to turn to after doing the self-assessment. The resources are organized by and aligned with the topics discussed in the scorecard and guidebook. They’re using a WordPress taxonomy plugin that follows the benchmarking tool topics.

In the future, Christi imagines the library including links to resources from the association industry (like this blog), ASAE, and BoardSource; session recordings; LinkedIn Learning; ideas from other chapters and associations; and even applicable case studies from the corporate world. However, the library is a work in progress right now. Resource collection, creation, cataloging, and curation takes time.

Because it’s part of their strategic plan, an ELC work group is identifying gaps in the existing library and figuring out what they have available at AGC and what they need to find elsewhere. The ELC is responsible for collecting, creating, cataloging, and curating the library’s resources. AGC staff cannot develop or search for resources, but they will upload them.

The ELC hasn’t yet built up the volunteer muscle required for this project because it’s always been Christi’s job to do all these things, but that’s not a sustainable approach. This work is not for AGC; it’s for the chapters and ELC volunteers must do the work.



An annual self-assessment and scorecard/guidebook review isn’t going to transform chapters on its own. Chapter staff and volunteer leaders must develop the muscle memory for high performance. High-performing chapters have high-performing leaders, either executives or volunteers, so you start there. AGC plans to rely on the help of Mariner Management to develop the leadership skills, association management expertise, and financial acumen of their chapter executives.

AGC also has a mentoring program for new chapter executives. Christi talks to the new exec to learn what they’re looking for in a mentor and finds a good match for them, someone who has the bandwidth and knowledge needed by the new exec.

AGC had remarkable success with a new coaching program last year. They offered chapter executives a deeply discounted executive coach or a peer group coaching arrangement. If they chose both services, they received an even deeper discount. Last year, 7 chapter executives worked individually with a coach and 13 execs took part in the facilitated peer groups—one was a group of 7 and one was a group of 6. This year, 8 execs chose individual coaching and 22 execs are participating in the peer groups.

A chapter self-assessment that measures what matters—performance—is the first step in a transformative journey for you and your chapters. With the insight gleaned from chapter benchmarking data and the resources and training facilitated by your association, your chapters will become more effective partners in delivering value to your members.


It’s worth repeating: you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Billhighway allows you to capture the chapter financial, engagement, and performance data you need, while providing a healthy balance of autonomy for your chapters and visibility for your association. Contact us if you’d like a peek behind the curtain to see how our software works.


You receive a lot of emails…we get it. Subscribe to the content you want and we’ll do the rest! We send updates on new articles, guides, webinars, events, conferences and more. Receive awesome resources in your inbox every month >>

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.