An Alternative to Chapters – Creating Communities

Maddy Marchildon In the Industry Leave a Comment


Association executives have observed that technology may be replacing certain aspects (read: value) of their organization. It can be argued that while business and connections are increasingly being made online, we need to face the reality that the structure of an association may need to change in order to integrate technology into the landscape of professional development and networking. One structure to consider that may be more conducive to associations with members located across the country (or the world), with constricted budgets, and in the age of technology, is moving from a regional chapter model to a community model, such as through networks or communities of practice.

Some associations are feeling threatened by technology; particularly, those that feel that the majority of what they offer in terms of value is through networking. This ‘fear’ can be traced back even further, to when information and resources began becoming more accessible via the internet. Why join an association, when many resources are available online and when professionals can find their own networking opportunities?

Associations need to embrace change. The first step toward making a change is accepting that your membership needs may be changing. Technology doesn’t mean that your association is no longer relevant, it just changes the way you and your members are interacting with one another. If you consider the majority of your current members, and prospective members, creating a robust online community platform where members from across the country can join whichever community they are most interested in (think sectors from within your industry) may actually increase the scope of your reach.

While you might find some resistance form long-time members, who will probably say that interaction and the bonds they formed in-person is what made their association membership valuable (which we do not intend to devalue in any way – these are extremely important), the fact is that many people are only able to meet in person once per year, or even less due to a small budget, particularly for the more junior professionals who are your future association champions. These are the people we need to think of when moving to an online community model as we move into the future:

  • The remote member – This model will provide a way for those located in less populated areas, or areas where your industry may just be starting to grow, to be introduced to the association sector to keep the industry viable.
  • The niche interest member – Within each industry there are a number of sub-sectors that may only make up a small portion of your members, but are important nonetheless. Providing a community outside of their regions will likely generate more interest in your association’s membership, and providing an online platform will introduce the possibility for these individuals to make connections that they, more likely than not, would ever have in person in the first place.
  • The Gen Y or Gen Z member – It goes without saying that the tech-savvy, digital-obsessed, 140-character attention span members (this is a generalization, but true of many of us!) will enjoy having access to an online community where they can get credible information, connect with more seasoned professionals, and cut down on their research time through LinkedIn or other social media platforms. Gen Z is the first demographic to have never known life without the internet, so connecting online will be seen as a given.
  • The super-engaged member – These are the members that are looking to get engaged outside of in-person meetings. They are looking for ways to post on forums, blogs, share resources, etc.
  • The cross-sectional member – These days, many people can relate to downsizing or merging departments, and seeing their roles expand. Creating a number of different communities based on roles and interest, rather than regional location, and allowing members to join multiple groups will allow them to get more ‘bang for their buck’.
  • The short-on time member – In the same vein, with constantly changing workloads, personal commitments, and ever-career changes, many people cannot commit to multiday conferences. An online community allows these individuals to fit in some engagement at their own convenience.
  • The broke member – Constricted budgets may not allow for a member to attend an in-person meeting, though they be able to afford an e-membership that could be less expensive, and still allows for some engagement.

Technology is impacting the value that associations can provide, whether we plan for it or not. By considering whether your association’s model would be more conducive to creating networking and communities of practice, while also investing in a robust platform to allow for your association to be the hub for these conversations, is one way of considering how your association should move into the future.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright, ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership (April 2016), Washington, DC. To see the original article, click here

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Maddy is the Director of Association Management & Consulting Services at Redstone Agency. Maddy has worked with dozens of national and international not-for-profit organizations and is focused on ensuring her clients always receive advice based on best practices and brings a wealth of knowledge in membership engagement, systems and processes management and change management.

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