I work at a nationwide, chapter-based organization. Our national office provides an orientation call and tailored support/resources to new members. After that first engagement, members’ experiences vary widely depending on the strength of their chapter (and the members’ willingness to reach back out for help). Are there easy things chapters can do to keep members engaged or help them develop engaged members into chapter leaders?

 

Let’s take a minute to get on the same page about what engages new members and what keeps them engaged. 

One effective formula for engagement comes from Hahrie Han’s How Organizations Develop Activists. Han compared engagement strategies at several types of chapter organizations and found that organizations with the most engaged and longest engaged members relied on a common formula:

 

  1. Give new members opportunities to build relationships. People often get involved and stay involved because they have a personal relationship with someone in the organization. While organizers can’t guarantee that all members will form relationships, we can create the conditions under which they are likely to do so by putting them into contact with one another as much as possible. Consider a mentorship program, organizer speed-dating, a buddy system, or social breakout groups and activities during chapter meetings (all of which can be adapted for remote organizing). Give people the ability and the space to form relationships, and watch what happens. 
  2. Give new members real roles that increase their skills and trust over time. People like to stick around in places where they’re able to use and develop skills and where their contributions are valued. Many chapter organizations with engagement issues display a similar pattern: some organizers (perhaps chapter leaders) are very overloaded while others don’t feel like they have much to contribute. One approach to solving the problems of bottleneck and burnout across your organization is to implement chapter-level or, better yet, national skill-sharing, leadership development, training, or mentorship programs. All of these programs invest in skilling up members and enabling them to take on more complex tasks over time. Many organizations have extremely effective mentorship programs, which range in length from months to years. The best programs focus not just on training members to lead chapters but on skilling them up to fill a variety of roles. After all, not everyone will aspire to lead a chapter, and that’s absolutely fine. The idea here is to structure training and leadership development so that more people develop agency and skills as they go. Just asking volunteers to sign a petition or design a meme will not do the trick; the organization must invest in members’ growth at a deep level. If you don’t have enough roles for new members, design campaigns that will create those roles, then invest in mentorship and training to help new members skill up over the course of the campaign. You might start by diagraming out your chapter membership process to locate the best place to train or develop new folks. New member intake is a great way to plug someone into a training or mentorship program. Ask new members what they’re interested in learning and send them on to the closest next step. Nationally, you should have the capacity to create a fairly robust training program, and many volunteers or even whole chapters will jump to teach their skills and share their successes. 

  3. Show members how their work fits into a larger whole. This is the toughest part of engagement. Humans can easily start to feel isolated and powerless — good organizing fights that tendency. National chapter organizations should work to reflect members’ collective power at two levels: the chapter level and the national level. Typically, organizations fall short at one level or the other, and I’ll mention some strategies for each level. At the national level, consider doing occasional, all-chapter calls. (I often hear this particular tactic called a “mass call,” and it’s favored by many organizations with super high engagement.) Just the act of seeing other members from all over the country can do a lot to show individual members that they are part of something bigger. You can also use your communications to recognize the work of different chapters through network-wide updates or diagrams of the entire network. Another great way to show members how their work is part of a larger whole is to organize a National Day of Action. Being part of a distributed event that happens across the country feels — and is — huge. This doesn’t have to be a tall ask; even a movie night will help members feel connected to the rest of the chapters. But don’t forget to report on what happened on the day of action in an evocative, participatory way. Not all chapter members will check the website where you’re stashing photos, so share out the best photos from the actions and ask members to submit their own. You might also get regions or teams of chapters to work together on building a specific campaign or skill, for example, a mentorship program! At the chapter level, I’d recommend similar tactics but on a smaller scale: recognize the achievements of a working group or individual, ask members to share out what they’re working on, start an appreciation circle or carve out reflection time after major events, or participate in a local event or national campaign as a chapter. Again, it’s all about showing members that their work and time have a larger impact than just that single task. That they are an important part of a larger whole. 

Your chapters collectively contain the embedded intelligence to solve your engagement problem and to implement all of the pieces of the engagement formula. No chapter or staff member needs to solve this problem alone. Invite the chapters that do engagement well to share what they do, hold roundtables, and bring in advisors. Convene a working group to distill learnings and design your skill-sharing and leadership development programming. Ultimately, your chapters are the ones who will need to implement the solutions here, so what better way to start that work than by tackling the problem collectively?

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