Keeping Nonprofits & Their Chapters on the Same Page

"The national office keeps trying to dictate our work."
"The northwest chapter missed the campaign deadline again."
"The Washington, DC staffers don't understand how busy we chapter reps are!"
"The chapters don't understand how busy the national office is!"
Those are the kinds of complaints I've heard while working for organizations with chapters or affiliates. And it doesn't matter what kind of organization it is - international, national, coalitions or unions - there's always some friction between the main office and the affiliates. Here are some things I've learned about how to keep things running as smoothly as possible.

For the main office working with affiliates
  • Have a communications strategy. One organization I worked with was sending action alerts from three different offices to their chapters, which left the chapter leaders overwhelmed and confused about what was priority, and then the national staff got frustrated with chapter inaction.
  • Be responsive. Staffmembers need to answer affiliate calls and emails as quickly as possible. Show affiliates that their needs matter, and they'll be quicker to prioritize organization-wide initiatives.
  • Respect the affiliates' points of view, and their variations in capacity. What sounds like a great idea in Washington or San Francisco may be a terrible idea in Detroit or Dallas.
  • Include chapters in planning campaigns and projects. If you want their participation later, get them involved early.
  • Collaborate via wikis. (See the recent TechSoup webinar on Collaborating with Wikis to learn how to use this great tool.)
  • Keep communications simple. Of all the updates and articles I've sent out, I got the best feedback on a weekly legislative update which just listed the status of key bills and let affiliate leaders know what to do and when. No analysis, no fluff.
  • Keep paperwork to a minimum. You know how some funders make you nuts with paperwork and reporting demands? Don't do that to your affiliates. Build easy reporting methods into your work, such as through online forms, and share the results so everyone can benefit.

For affiliates working with a main office
  • Be clear and specific with the head office about your needs so they can help.
  • Read those emails from the national office before calling with questions. The staff write those emails for a reason!
  • Fill out your paperwork, and send it in on time. The more time the staff spends trying to get you to send in reports or finance paperwork, the less time they have for other important things.
  • Respect the main office's point of view. They have the tough job of creating a workable program for a wide mix of affiliates. If something's not working for you, talk to them and see what can be adjusted.
  • Remember that a unified organization is a stronger one. The campaigns that come from the head office need your participation to succeed.

For everybody
Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Nearly all companies and organizations have some chatter about head office "scheming" or ineptitude in a local branch, but it's not helpful. These stories often make faulty assumptions about why something isn't working well. If something's not right, deal with it directly.

When things get frustrating, stop and remember that you agree on what matters most: your organization's mission.