Membership’s new star—association chapters—offers unique insights into what will propel their organizations forward

13 July 2021

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At the start of the year, AH released a series of predictions of what lies ahead for associations and non-profits in 2021. We're revisiting those predictions each month to see what's changed as associations and non-profits continue to adapt.

It’s evident that the pandemic has placed foresight for associations in the spotlight — but the need to prepare for the future no longer applies only to top-down, national leadership.

COVID-19 created so many challenges, but also a lot of opportunities,” said Nicolette Zuecca, MPA, CAE, Chief Staff Executive of the Wound, Ostomy, and Continence Nurses (WOCN®) Society™. “Our regions and affiliates were crucial to keeping us going during that time, but we saw the need to have conversations around our current structure and its sustainability.”

The Changing Role of the Association Chapter

Even before COVID-19 arrived on the scene to disrupt the workings of organizations worldwide, the role of chapters, regional groups, special interest groups, and components was already shifting. According to the “2019 Chapter Benchmarking Report: Data, Success Stories & Opinions” by Mariner Management and Marketing and Billhighway, “there is change afoot.”

The report, which tracked chapter trends since 2016, concluded that “fundamental shifts have occurred” and that “associations are beginning to view chapters as a critical component of their membership engagement strategy. Everyone [surveyed] listed member engagement as important — 64% said it’s ‘absolutely essential’ and 25% said it’s ‘very important.’ No one described it as less than ‘important.’”

Other strategic roles that topped the list for chapters were leadership development and member recruitment.

The WOCN Society is one example of an organization that recognized that shift and decided to harness it to positively impact the future. At the WOCN 2021 Foresight Summit, 33 region and affiliate representatives gathered in a virtual setting to address three of the ASAE ForesightWorks drivers of change (socializing reshaped, volunteering, and virtualized meetings) deemed critical for the sustainability of the WOCN Society’s regions and affiliates.

“Our individual regions were formulated approximately 40 years ago,” explained Zuecca. “We discovered we were operating in silos and there was a disconnect between not just the national, but also between the regions and affiliates. National needed to be supportive and think about how we can all better align to move forward in the strategic direction of the organization.”

Three Main Drivers of Change for Association Chapters

In order to create a new model that would help to assimilate the organization to the needs of the changing landscape, the WOCN Society’s region and affiliate representatives first brainstormed, then defined their biggest pain points—volunteering, networking, and adhering to the WOCN Society’s best practices and policies.


Like most associations, networking and socializing is one of the most valued components of membership. For the WOCN Society, technology still allowed them to connect when meeting in-person was no longer an option—though it had its limits. The conversation centered around questions such as, would they go back to a face-to-face structure? Or did they need to better utilize technology?

“There had been previous talks about creating a social network with the use of technology,” said Zuecca. “One of our primary goals is to connect and we are in the process of exploring a social platform for regions and affiliates.”

“Volunteering” or “Service”?

To function and thrive, non-profit organizations rely heavily on members who freely donate their time and resources to the membership and the WOCN Society is no exception—regions and affiliates are strictly volunteer-driven. Yet one of the most surprising discoveries of the Summit was that the connotations surrounding the word “volunteer” held little meaning for younger generations.

“The thinking that younger generations have is that they want to give back,” said Zuecca. “The word ‘service’ has that connotation and was suggested to replace ‘volunteering’ in our language.”

Another issue that came up was the challenge in gathering members to plan local educational events. Virtual meetings and how the national component could support the use of them were discussed.

In addressing the need to connect virtually on the local level, the conversation brought younger, digital-savvy generations into the fold who seek face-to-face opportunities to connect, learn, serve, and socialize with their peers, mentors, and clients in a way that is relevant to them.

Adhering to Best Practices

Another result of the disconnect that the WOCN Society’s regions and affiliates were experiencing was difficulty in adhering to the society’s best practices: i.e., guidelines, rules and regulations, policies, and financial management.

 “They were struggling with issues such as obtaining volunteers and being immersed in running the operations of their respective region or affiliate,” explained Zuecca.

The outcome from the Summit was the formation of a task force that consisted of regional and affiliate representatives, collaborating on what a new structure could look like and how it would serve their purpose. They would then make recommendations to the board of directors.

The Challenge of Organizational Change

As in all organizational talk of change, there was some resistance. But, said Zuecca, the leaders at the Summit all realized something had to shift, as the way the WOCN Society was currently structured was not sustainable for the future. Eyes were opened as region and affiliate representatives came to realize they shared many of the same issues as another region; board members had a perspective on issues that they weren’t aware of from grassroots-level leaders; and regions and affiliates gained a different, national perspective.

“There were a lot of ‘Aha!’ moments,” said Zuecca. “Everyone felt good and invigorated, validated and heard, and felt the need to move forward with change. The task force really gets it. I think they will make great recommendations, which the board will take into the strategic planning meeting in September.”

She does caution that all the changes will not happen all at once, however, and stresses that they need to be implemented in a methodical, systematic, and sensitive way. But despite the work to be done, she is extremely optimistic of what this will mean to the organization’s future.

“In my 20-plus years working with clients, this was one of the best, most positive meetings I’ve experienced,” said Zuecca. “I think great things will come out of it.”

Learn more about component & chapter management at AH.

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