IABC Chapters Need Help — Now!

My communication career flashed before my eyes last night. No, it wasn’t a dream or a momentary panic attack that caused the flashback. It was a reception sponsored by IABC/Richmond.

I’m a member of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). Nothing against PRSA — the Richmond chapter is a fine group that offers great programs — but IABC holds a special place in this communicator’s heart. In some ways, however, my heart is breaking. I’ll explain why in a moment.

Last night’s reception was like a class reunion. Some of us who grew up in IABC/Richmond had a wonderful time recalling our first meeting and many memorable events since then — certain speakers, chapter leaders, interesting meeting venues, international and regional conferences, long-time friendships.

I thought about the milestones of my career so far and how IABC is a common theme among them:

  • I remember the first person I met at an IABC meeting — Dawn Stuart, ABC. She remains a friend today, though she now lives in a different state.
  • I met my mentor and best friend — Les Potter, ABC — when he came to speak to our chapter as vice-chairman of the association in 1991. That first encounter with Les changed the course of my career in numerous ways.
  • I became an Accredited Business Communicator in 1992. It served as a significant barometer of my career up to that point and led me to learn skills and gain experience where I needed to.
  • I served three years on the IABC Executive Board, which enabled me to meet top communicators from all over the world, to visit interesting cities I otherwise might not have visited, and to learn how to lead.
  • I have served two terms as president of my home chapter, which also gave me much-needed experience in leadership and management.
  • I have made more friends than I can count — communicators from all over the world, many of whom are the “rock stars” of our profession.

My membership and participation in IABC has opened countless doors for me and prepared me for the work I’m doing now. I owe a lot to the association.

That’s why it breaks my heart that my home chapter and many others like it are struggling to retain members, much less grow, and to attract more than a handful of people to monthly meetings. Even more heartbreaking is that the leadership of IABC — both volunteer and staff — don’t seem interested in doing anything to help.

IABC has focused its attention on global growth and services provided at the international level, especially over the last 10 years. This is a fine and appropriate thing for a global organization to do — but not at the expense of local chapters. Chapters are where IABC members live. If we lose the chapters, we lose the lifeblood of the association.

IABC/Richmond once was considered a leader among mid-sized chapters. It was vibrant and active. As we recalled last night, coming to an IABC/Richmond meeting was an energizing experience. Now the chapter is struggling, but it is not because of mismanagement or lack of effort by local volunteers. Understanding the problem — and, more important, what to do about it — requires more resources and experience than IABC/Richmond leaders can muster. And the Richmond chapter is not alone. This scenario is playing out in many other chapters, especially in North America.

It’s interesting that just this week I received a mass e-mail from IABC — over the signatures of IABC Chairman Mark Schumann, ABC, and President Julie Freeman, ABC, APR — that tells of a soul-searching exercise the association is undertaking right now. “We recognize that IABC needs to stay relevant and in touch with its members, others in the profession, and the business community,” they write, and the IABC Executive Board is working on ways to do so, including the administration of a member survey.

I hope IABC members send a strong message that the association should do more to support the health of local chapters. The experience and expertise of IABC volunteer leaders and staff should be focused on helping chapters figure out ways to boost local membership and participation. We need help. I’ve served on my chapter’s board numerous times and have tried to help crack this nut, but it’s time to call in the reinforcements.

It would be a shame to watch IABC die from the ground up, but that is what will happen if chapters don’t receive the support they need and deserve.


15 Responses

  1. I’m so glad I saw your tweet with the link to this post. I’d like to offer whatever help I can give to IABC Richmond. I’ve worked with many chapters personally to help diagnose problems and find solutions. Shall we arrange a Skype call to get started?


    Barbara Gibson, ABC
    Past Chair, IABC

  2. Hey Robert

    Thanks for using your blog to raise this issue.

    Wanted to say that I can completely relate to you on how IABC is woven into the fabric of your career in terms of a theme. I can say “ditto” to your outline.

    As a current director at large on the IABC IEB and a past president of the Toronto chapter (served six years), I would be happy to offer any guidance , best practices, and tips from my experiences to help the Richmond chapter. The Toronto chapter has been around for 65 plus years and still has its ups and downs.

    While I know many people would say but Toronto is the largest chapter and the issues are not the same, I would have to disagree as the issues are exactly the same – it is only a difference in scale.

    Unfortunately I am no longer in the eastern standard time zone as I just relocated to Hong Kong but can easily do a teleconference call with the chapter or converse via email.

    I can also suggest the Richmond chapter do a twinning with the Toronto chapter board. I can easily do an introduction or alternatively I suggest some seasoned board members to assist.

    As you know IABC’s strength is the fantastic network so let’s put it to good use!

    Happy to help. Feel free to pass my name forward!

    Felicia Shiu

    • Thank you, Felicia. I certainly appreciate your offer of support, as well as Barb’s.

      I want to point out, however, that the Richmond chapter is not alone in its struggles. While my interest is vested in the Richmond chapter, I believe this is a larger issue that needs to be addressed at the International Executive Board and staff level. My belief is that IABC has grown its global footprint and its products/services offerings in the last decade at the expense of ensuring chapters are as healthy as they can be so that they can serve members at the grassroots level. This must change if IABC is to prosper in the long term.

  3. Robert, it was great to see you last night. Thanks for the post. I had a very similar discussion with another IABC/Richmond member just before I left.

    As a relatively new chapter member who made a 4-hour round trip drive to get last night’s event, I would really like to see more international support for our local chapter.

    It’s almost cliche to point out that everything needs to add value these days as more and more of us are being stretched to the limit in our work. With so many demands and opportunities competing for our time (including other professional organizations like PRSA), we need to know that our local IABC chapter events and activities will help us advance our skills and impact our communications efforts. Presumably that’s why we joined IABC in the first place. IABC simply needs to recognize this and do more to help.

  4. I’m very glad that Robert initiated this conversation. I have been frustrated for the past couple of years with the local Richmond chapter. I am a member of PRSA and AMA and they both routinely attract 100 or more attendees at each luncheon. IABC Richmond is lucky to have 6-10 people. I also attend IABC Washington, DC meeting because I happen to be in the area and they have great attendance as well.
    Like Robert, I have a fondness for IABC and give IABC a lot of credit for helping with my career. I can even go further and say that probably 90% of my business has emanated from IABC members! The other 10% is from other association networking efforts.
    I don’t want to see IABC Richmond shrink any further, we need some help in keeping it alive.

  5. Robert–The staff and I recognize how important chapters are to IABC and know that some are experiencing difficulties maintaining membership and running programs. But global growth and chapter support are not mutually exclusive. In fact HQ staff provides a great deal of support to chapters.

    Staff helps chapters get started, provides assistance to struggling chapters, holds monthly calls with chapter presidents and brand champions, hosts chapter web sites, creates on-line resources for running chapters, offers consultation on professional development and other chapter management issues. We fund the travel of board members to speak at chapter programs. We plan, run and most of the costs the annual Leadership Insitute. As far as growing membership, chapters have three months a year when members can join without paying the initial set-up fee and currently we are running a member-get-a-member program to reward those members who recruit other members.

    The strength and challenge for chapters is that they are volunteer run. The international staff and board can offer ideas, training and encouragement to local volunteers, but we cannot replace the colleague to colleague connections that compel communications professionals to join and get involved in IABC’s programs.

    I hope that you will complete the upcoming survey to give us specific ideas of how IABC can support a vital part of its organization. Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. Robert,
    I feel your pain. In fact, IABC Lincoln felt it deeply about 3 years ago when we had a “summit” of current, past, and as it would turn out, future leaders to decide if IABC Lincoln would even continue. Shutting down the chapter was a real possibility. Membership had dwindled from 48 in the late ’90’s to 29. We had no president, president-elect or VP of membership.

    Today, IABC Lincoln is one of IABC’s top 20 chapters worldwide in membership growth. We’ve increased membership by nearly 30% in the last 18 months. We have a full board and healthy attendance at monthly PD meetings. This is happening in the current economy and in a market dominated by government and higher education – neither of which supports IABC memberships for their employees.

    We did this by focusing on core functions (professional development, membership development and administration), getting personal, reconnecting with IABC, and completely rethinking our leadership structure.

    What does that mean? We’ve sent two people to Leader Institute for the past three years to make sure there are always a few people in the chapter with the “IABC fever.” Our Board divvies up the list of members and hot prospects and calls every person every month to remind them about the meeting. (I know this is possible in part because we are a small chapter, but the effort has paid off.) Email blasts are great, but a phone call is better.

    We don’t have a president, a president-elect or ANY vice presidents any more. We have team leaders – two people who coordinate each function with the idea that there’s always one coordinator who has a year’s experience in the position. We have two “chapter coordinators” who oversee chapter management — again, one in their first year of service and one in their second. It makes it hard to fill out IABC’s Board roster, but having a leadership structure that works for IABC Lincoln makes that little challenge worth it.

    Lots of former IABC Lincoln leaders stepped up to the plate to help us through the tough times, and you’ll recognize some of the names — Carol Jess, Nance Harris, ABC, Carolyn Douglas, Lee Foster — but we now have a great bunch of new leaders on board. The best thing that past leaders of IABC Lincoln did to help was to be good stewards of our money. We had enough in reserve to allow us to run deficit budgets for two years. We should finish slightly in the black this year and are very optimistic for next year.

    What did we get from IABC to help us make this turnaround? Just what they’ve always given us. Great support services (though we still wish MMA were a little more user friendly) and the opportunity to connect with the energy of the international organization through LI and World Conference (our region helped out A LOT with scholarships for those). We used IABC connections to get great speakers for each of the last two annual workshops which we produced in collaboration with IABC Omaha. We also collaborate with them on our Quill awards and that partnership is definitely mutually beneficial.

    One of the coolest things about this for me is that most of the “veterans” who stepped up to help have been able to step away and the chapter is still thriving. I show up at a local Board meeting every now and then and I’m obviously not needed (though you know me well enough to know that I manage to get my .02 in ;-).

    I’d be happy to talk to you or anyone from Richmond about what we’ve done, (Heck, I’d be happy to talk to you period. You are one of my favorite people on the planet.) but its more important for IABC Richmond to think about what it wants and needs and then be creative about going after it.

    Sorry for the rambling rant.


  7. Thank you, Julie, for your detailed response.

    I don’t know if chapter leaders are fully aware of the support IABC provides. Many of the things you mention could be helpful as volunteer leaders strive to manage their chapters effectively.

    However, I also believe IABC could be more proactive in helping shore up struggling chapters. Just as you suggest colleague-to-colleague outreach, it seems to me IABC would reach out to chapters that are clearly underperforming to see what specific help they need. Right or wrong, many chapter leaders simply won’t ask for the help they need.

    Also, there is something to be said for simply helping chapter leaders feel they are a priority. We members read so much about IABC’s global growth and high-level programs and services, but we hear very little about what IABC is doing to support chapters, as evidenced by my lack of knowledge of some of the things you mentioned in your comments.

    Marcia, I also appreciate your example and specific ideas. What I especially like about your story is how the Lincoln chapter thought creatively and differently about how to structure itself to meet changing needs. I will suggest that my chapter’s leaders reach out to you to follow up on some of these ideas.

  8. Robert,

    I’m glad that I came across your post and the comments. This year, I joined the IABC/Chicago board, and plan to stay actively involved next year and beyond. We’ve been talking about how to tackle issues like the ones you raise, and what resources we have available to us.

    I’m fortunate to be in a chapter that is healthy, both in terms of volunteer and financial resources. Even so, we’ve had to deal with many issues, not the least of which was the unexpected death last summer of our chapter president, Karen Utterback.

    Past chapter president stepped forward to form a steering committee that worked with the elected board members to keep the ship afloat and moving forward.

    As I read your post and the comments, I wondered how a struggling chapter would have been able to survive.

    One suggestion I have is based on my experience with another volunteer organization: Toastmasters International. TM structures its organization so that individual clubs are grouped into areas, and have an area governor who provides support and encouragement to those clubs. The areas report to divisions and districts, which report to regions and ultimately to the international board.

    IABC chapters would benefit if members of our regional boards (or their designees) regularly speak with chapter leaders about successes, challenges and opportunities. The regions also could help to facilitate contacts between chapters leaders, to get past that “don’t ask for help” mentality that you mentioned.

    The IABC executive board could continue to travel to chapters, and provide additional opportunities for advice and support. But the primary engagement would be between chapters and the regions.

    I’m committed to making these connections for IABC/Chicago, and I’ll try to remember to let you know how it goes.

    • Tom,
      I believe that I met you at the regional conference in Minneapolis. That’s one way that IABC regions offer chapters the opportunity to connect.

      IABC Pacific Plains also does just what you’re suggesting. Each chapter is assigned a chapter advocate who checks in with the chapter leadership regularly to offer help and support.

      Last year, Brian Everett did a great job offering regular web seminars on various leadership topics like succession planning, professional development, membership development, etc. that gave chapter leaders an opportunity to interact with one another. Even as a veteran IABC leader, I found those informative and helpful. I don’t know if Pacific Plains is planning to offer them again or not.

      It seems what we have here is a combination of “shoemaker’s children” syndrome and Hud syndrome – a failure of communicators to communicate.

      Given that our volunteer leadership turns over so frequently, we can’t communicate too often about the services and support available at all levels of IABC.

  9. Robert, thanks for reaching out to readers of this great blog. The spirit of IABC is obviously alive and well if the thoughtful responses and offers of support documented above are any indication. I’m not sure how much I can add to the good advice already contained in others’ comments, but here are a few things that come to mind. I hope they’re useful:

    * As Marcia mentioned, the annual Leadership Institute retreat is more than basic training for incoming chapter leaders. It’s a giant, living repository of our organization’s institutional memory. Send two (or three or four) of your most eager emerging leaders to that event and IABC Richmond will get a huge shot in the arm. I believe it’s the biggest single benefit that International offers its chapters — the leadership glue that keeps us together as one strong culture.

    * As much as International might be able to help an ailing chapter, I think senior local members hold the most potential to help turn the situation around. The most successful chapters over the long term seem to retain a core group of long-time members who might no longer serve in board positions but provide advice and support to the younger leaders. It might be worthwhile to reach out to some of those tribal elders and ask them to come out of retirement and help revitalize the chapter for a season or two.

    * Although it’s clear there are chapters that are healthier than others and perhaps are better at drawing support from International, I can’t help but wonder whether some of the problems you are experiencing are rooted not in our association but in the profession itself, which I believe has been suffering from a terrible malaise for the past ten or fifteen years. I’m not close enough to your situation to judge, but there may be deeper issues here — the general dumbing down and weakening of organizational communication caused by an over-reliance on technology in general, and intranets in particular; a failure on the part of corporate leaders to see the value of strategic communications, exacerbated by an equal failure on the part of communicators to sell the benefits of what we do; and a general decline in the quality of life in the workplace that has demoralized, demotivated and exhausted both employees and the communicators who serve them.

    It’s clear to me there’s a pressing need to inject some new excitement and energy into our profession. All the buzz around social media comes at a time when we need some sizzle in the old frying pan. My hope is that we use this moment in history to give ourselves a big reboot — one that embraces the emerging new paradigm but without abandoning time-worn values that risk being forgotten. Maybe what you’re seeing in Richmond is a wilting branch that’s about to give way to some powerful new sprouts!

  10. While this post and its responses voice the concerns of many IABC members, I’m also heartened by the dedication to this organization expressed by many of those who responded to your blog.
    One of the things that seems notably absent in this discussion is that there is also a regional team and structure to support the Richmond Chapter – and every other IABC Chapter.
    Richmond is located in the Heritage Region, which has an assigned Chapter Liaison who speaks regularly with its leadership team. Region services provided to our chapters include:
    · stipends to help Chapter Leaders make it to Leader Institute and our own Leadership Forum, held in conjunction with the annual Heritage Region Conference
    · round-table conference calls that address issues and share best practices identified in annual surveys of chapter leaders
    · resources so that developing and/or struggling chapters can afford to present exceptional programs
    · a regional conference that provides professional development and networking opportunities at a very reasonable cost – often within driving distance for our members
    That said, I’d be the first to admit that the economy has hit us hard – many of our formerly large chapters are now classified as medium chapters and many formerly medium chapters are now “small” chapters. But the thing that attracted me to IABC in the first place wasn’t the size of the group but its personal touch and the interest of members in each others’ welfare. The economy may have shrunk our ranks, but I don’t believe its diminished the spirit and camaraderie that distinguishes IABC.
    Do we face challenges? You bet! Are there resources to help us meet them? There are – and people willing to pitch in and offer support. I’d say make sure your chapter is availing itself of all the Heritage Region has to offer, and if we aren’t offering something you think would improve the situation, let’s talk. We’re always open to suggestions.
    Randi Hansen, Director, IABC Heritage Region, hansenforiabc@gmail.com

    • Thank you, Randi. I certainly agree with your comment about the dedication of IABC members to the association’s welfare. That is one of the hallmarks of IABC. Also, I appreciate your mentioning all the resources and services offered by the Heritage Region.

      If nothing else, I believe this discussion has elevated the issue of chapter support and facilitated a good discussion about how IABC at all levels — international, regional and chapter — can respond to the issue.

      • I couldn’t agree more! This issue deserves our focus. We can only benefit from sharing opinions, ideas, and some collective creative thinking.

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