Ways to Engage Association Members at the Chapter Level

Association meeting

Article written by: Kristi Casey Sanders, DES, HMCC

The rules of association engagement are changing. If you want your local chapter to thrive, think about decentralizing control.

“Millennials want small portions of volunteerism; They don’t want to commit to being on the board (or a committee) for a year,” says Karen Fogle, CMP, CTA, TDM, a veteran association member and sales manager of association and corporate markets for Visit Plano (Texas), a convention and visitors bureau.

“But if you need someone to rewrite this document or work on one event, they’ll be more willing to take on that mini-project because they don’t want to be in meetings ad nauseum.”

Who does? Associations large and small find it increasingly difficult to get members to make the long-term commitments traditional chapter leadership positions require.

The problem with the traditional association board structure, and how to fix it

Here’s what typically happens when a chapter tries to adhere to a traditional board structure, where all jobs—from finance and event planning to membership acquisition—are assigned to a handful of board members.

  • Only a few people step up to make the year-long or multi-year commitment, so elections are between only two candidates or uncontested.
  • Because each position is responsible for a variety of tasks, people are asked to do things they’re good at and things they’re not.
  • If things aren’t done very well, it’s difficult to take them to task because they’re volunteers.
  • If no one else volunteers, the same passionate few rotate through all the available leadership roles.
  • Those people doing all the work eventually burn out, leaving a vacuum in leadership.

By breaking board responsibilities into mini-projects, however, you will:

  • Engage far more of your membership by decentralizing the work that needs to be done.
  • Make it possible for members to give back to the organization without making a large time commitment.
  • Match tasks or projects with people who have the appropriate expertise.
  • Ensure that people are working on passion projects.
  • Empower your membership to take more ownership of the day-to-day operations.
  • Make it easier for members to get more involved in becoming leaders, at their own pace.
  • Deepen your pool of potential leaders.
  • Prevent people from overcommitting and burning out.

If you want to retain members, you want to make it as easy as possible for them to get and stay involved, because that involvement helps people understand the value of belonging to the association. “It’s your interaction with everyone else and what they’re doing that expands your viewpoint,” Fogle explains.

Volunteering builds value

Fogle belongs to several associations, including two chapters of Meeting Professionals International (Dallas/Fort Worth and the Texas Hill Country), Texas Association of Convention and Visitors BureausTexas Society of Association ExecutivesDestination Marketing Association International and Professional Convention Management Association.

“Everything that I do, all the associations I belong to have brought value,” she says. “Each association has a different group of people. …every one of them has a different flavor.”

Not content to passively enjoy her membership benefits, Fogle makes a point of volunteering for committees and board positions. This commitment to volunteer leadership recently earned her the 2015 TSAE Distinguished Affiliate Award, which recognized her for “outstanding professionalism and service to the association community.”

She doesn’t volunteer to get accolades, however. “I get energy from it,” she says. And volunteering for different projects helps her expand her professional skill set and network of connections.

“Professionally, you have to keep expanding,” she explains. “With associations, you’re being connected to potential people to do business with, your peer group and people who can connect you to things you need.”

Millennials aren’t joiners’ but they need you

“The Millennials are not association joiners,” Fogle says. “It’s kind of scary sometimes when I talk to really young meeting planners and I ask them about how they found out about a hotel property. They’ll say, ‘Some of my friends on Facebook recommended it.’ It’s a random reason, but it’s from their trusted network.”

Millennials need a professional resource they trust as much as their friends. They love getting involved and helping others, but they don’t want to make a major time commitment.

In short, they need associations—they may not be aware of that yet, but they do. They’re no different than any other generation that’s entered the workforce: They want to advance up the ladder quickly. To do that, they need access to a network and business opportunities. That’s where associations come in.

In order to become the trusted network Millennials need, associations may need to act more like friends.

Is your association acting like a friend?


  • Give advice and are helpful.
  • Are open, honest and supportive.
  • Enjoy being around you and make you feel welcome.
  • Care about how you feel.
  • Help you out.

Friends don’t:

  • Care only about your money, status or prestige.
  • Expect you to give, give, give without reciprocation.
  • Make you feel stupid or unwelcome.
  • Leave you out in the cold.
  • Ignore what you think or feel.
  • Send you spammy emails.

Ask yourself: Is your association acting like a friend? If not, what kind of work do you need to do to attract new members and engage your existing ones?

Kristi Casey Sanders, DES, HMCC is Meeting Professionals International Director of Professional Development. Kristi loves to explore how technology enhances, engages and connects people face-to-face, virtually and remotely and is passionate about education, engagement, technology and the power of community.  

Cover photo credit: Nan Palmero


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