Engagement: Local vs. National

Written by Jamie Notter on July 19, 2016

For very many association members, ”engagement” will include experiences at the local level (frequently through a chapter/component) and at the national level, through the national association. There are obviously a LOT of issues wrapped up in the national/component relationship, and I’m not attempting to address them all here. But I want to pull out an important point, since it relates to culture.

When it comes to how associations manage the local/national split on engagement, we tend to divide and conquer. National does its thing, and the Chapters do their thing. I think in most cases, the chapters are separate legal entities anyway, so this makes some sense. And historically, you tended to go to your local chapter for the networking events and local study groups for the certification, but relied on National to provide the big annual meeting and the certification standards. Fine. But this divide/conquer approach led to the development of distinctly different cultures at National and the Chapters over time.

And perhaps that’s not the end of the world (there are always variations among subgroups within a culture), but in today’s environment, much of engagement involves an online/virtual component, which means the lines between local and national can get blurred. The member wants to go online to find out about volunteering opportunities through the association’s new “volunteer bank” and they don’t particularly care if National created it or if the chapter did, but they’re expecting to see volunteer opportunities that are both local and national. But our divide/conquer and separate culture pattern doesn’t like these blurred lines. Someone has to “own” that volunteer bank, and the thought of negotiating with 50+ chapters on how to manage it is really depressing. Let’s create a national volunteer bank, and then hope that the chapters can figure out a way to use it locally. That’s the best we can do.

So here’s the deal: maybe the new operating environment is asking us to shift our culture. 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.

If that sounds impossible to you, then maybe you should look for a new line of work. Sorry to be harsh, but maybe you need to go find an industry that is not in flux, that has a super-stable customer base whose experiences and expectations aren’t changing rapidly. Go find that job, so you can show up every day and implement according to the plan and the way it’s always been done.

Because we need to make room for a different kind of association executive. One who recognizes that the work of associations—the work of engaging members and stakeholders in ways that produce extraordinary value for both the stakeholders and the organization—requires innovation, new practices, and a much stronger focus on the role of culture.

Culture makes it clear what is valued, and our traditional local/national split is all about valuing efficiency and control in a centralized hierarchy. It puts the association at the center of the universe, and that’s not what today’s stakeholders are expecting. We need cultures that are open to integrating local and national engagement experiences. The longer you wait to make those changes, the easier it will be for newer entities to swoop in and start stealing away your members.

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