How Healthy Is Your Association?

healthy canary

Coal mine tunnels were dangerous for miners when gasses, such as carbon monoxide, collected intensely. In the early 1910s, coal miners started to take canaries down in the mines with them.

The canaries were more sensitive to the dangerous gasses than humans.

If a bird became sick in the mine, the miners knew they needed to get out of that area immediately.

(Technology eventually replaced the canaries.)

In our disruptive world, your association also has a canary indicating its health moving forward into the future.

The canary is your front-line involvement for members – your chapters.

You may call the groups networks, SIGs, regions, components – it doesn’t matter what you call them. And it doesn’t matter if they are virtual or face-to-face.

(For this post, I’m going to refer to all the above as chapters.)

The health of your chapters is equal to the canary as an early warning system for potential problems for your association.

How do you know if your chapters are healthy?

Simply put, do they have a surplus of volunteers?

It’s not the norm for many chapters; however, it is an indicator of excellent health.

In other words, almost all chapters have some tweaking to do to get to peak health.

Many chapters have years and decades of doing things the way they’ve always done it clouding their perspective of what is possible. They often struggle even to imagine what it might be like to have enough volunteers – let alone a surplus.

When you can’t imagine a goal, it’s extra hard to achieve it.

What about chapter dashboards? Don’t they paint the picture of health?

While helpful for monitoring some key performance indicators, they don’t tell the emotional story of what’s going on in the chapters. With most, a few martyrs can rule your chapters and win awards.

The dashboard numbers don’t translate into the strength and richness of your member community that fuels desire to be involved. 

A strong community is the key for surviving and thriving as the role of chapters continues to pick up importance for a dynamic future for your association.

(I explained power turned upside for chapters over national – and the impact on associations here.)

Ten things you’ll see when your chapter has a surplus of volunteers

Directions: As you read this list, think of a specific chapter or your typical chapter. If you are the chapter, grade your current experience.

As you read each point, ask yourself if it currently describes your chapter. If yes, make a hash mark on a piece of paper. At the end, we'll take a look at how many "Yes" answers you have.


#1: The chapter can easily launch new projects to move your mission forward fully staffed in mere days.

#2: There is a full bench of competent and confident current and future leaders for the chapter. A dynamic leadership development system continually trains members - and is valued by employers as well.

#3: Serving on the board is a rewarding opportunity. Elections are competitive. Leaders are excited work at a strategic level for the chapter.

#4: The committee/task force system is robust. Leaders create engaging and meaningful experiences for those who serve. Volunteers are regularly appreciated and valued for their contributions. Teams are fully staffed by volunteers happily making an impact every time they show up.

#5: Chapter meeting experiences are packed. They provide a vibrant community experience to help strengthen relationships. Learning, if included, is well-planned, exciting and relevant.

#6: Chapter social media efforts are active and have an abundance of contributions from across the membership.  Photos and conversations bring a wealth of value and fun to members.

#7: The chapter feels like a home away from home for all members. Everyone has some impact contribution they can make - and are valued whether tiny or large gifts of time. Diversity and inclusion are obvious giving the abundance of options for members to help move the mission forward.

#8: Chapter innovation and co-creation with members of the future is through the roof.  Leaders are focused on the future and moving the mission forward in a way to deliver more value and opportunities to members.

#9: Community is strong in your chapter. Relationships between members are deep - often overflowing into work and social space for members.

#10: The chapter has a vibrant pulse. Members love knowing whenever they show up, whether in person or virtually, they somehow make a difference for themselves, the chapter, their community - or even the world.

How did your chapter(s) do?

If each "Yes" is equal to 10% what kind of grade did the chapter earn?

10 out of 10 Yes answers or 100% as described above: Congratulations! You definitely have a surplus of volunteers. It is exciting and rewarding to be active in your chapter – and your members show they agree by being involved.

8 - 9 Yes answers = 80 - 90%:  Way to go! You’ve got a ton of good going on in your chapter. Some tweaking and a bit of training will help you go all the way.

5-7 Yes answers = 50-70%: You’ve got some things working well in your chapter. With strategic effort and leadership skill building, you’ll be able to create the shift that attracts more happy active members to your chapter.

Less than 5 Yes answers: Your chapter is running on the dedication and passion of a core team of people who may be fighting burnout. It’s time to let others get involved.  Building your skills and trying some new ideas will make your chapter experience easier for you – and help you make a bigger impact with your chapter.

When your chapter works towards having a surplus of volunteers, you’ll be able to do some of the exciting things you dreamed of – but were beyond the personal capacity of the leadership team.  There is exciting potential for your chapter.  Your headquarters association is there to help you – and I am too!

If you are a headquarter association with multiple chapters, you’ll want to eventually determine a grade for each chapter.

Then do the math to get the average grade for the health of your association.

The higher the score, the stronger your association is overall moving into the future.

If your typical chapter scores are on the lower end, you’ve got some work to do.

Change may need to start with you.

It’s critical for you to let go of the old story that only 20% of members will want to be active in your association. And only 10% leaders.

Those numbers were determined based on a system where national/HQ brought amazing value as a gatekeeper to resources and learning. Technology has equalized the bulk of that access.

Your chapters are the majority keepers of the relationships, the ability for members make an impact, the humanness and the heart of your association.

It takes a strong heart to live a long, vibrant life – even for your association.

Now you know what a chapter thriving with a surplus of volunteers looks like:

  • What kind of grade(s) did your chapter(s) earn?

  • How will your association support creating and keeping a surplus of volunteers in chapters?

FYI: I used a version of reading the waves of change to create a vision of what chapters will look like when they have a surplus of volunteers. If you want to learn this valuable skill set, I’m running free 30-minute classes as a give back to the community as I fine-tune my program. Learn more here.

You are not alone in figuring this all out. We will face the future together.

- Cynthia

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