Keeping your Chapter Sustainable

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So you have a chapter. That’s wonderful! Great job. Now that it is moving with pace, you should think about not only your chapters inception and growth, but its long term sustainability. It is comparatively easy to start a chapter, but to keep it thriving after you’re gone requires considerable tenacity and effort. This article should lay out some advice to consider as you look to the future of your organisation, and help you create a legacy of prosperity.

Reliable sources of funding

Probably the greatest handicap a chapter could develop is a lack of funding. It is incredibly difficult to keep members interested, to innovate, or to have fun if there is no money to fund your projects. There are a variety of funding sources, some of which can be found on the Funding your Chapter page. The first step in creating a sustainable chapter is finding and engaging the funding sources that are right for you, so if you are starting out, I would recommend that you read the funding wiki article first. However, it is one thing to get money one time, and another entirely to keep receiving funding from those sources. Just because you have received a grant one time does not mean you are guaranteed to receive the same amount the next year. However, there are a variety of tricks to improve your chances year on you.

  • Documentation - take photos of everything. Receipts, preparation and the event itself all demonstrate the impact that funding will give you. It will give you concrete proof that you are making a difference, and will make it more likely that sources will fund you further.
  • Be specific about funding amounts - Instead of applying for $2,000, apply only for the itemised list you want and need. Requesting $1,958.24 implies that you have actively thought about what funding will be used for, rather than a vague promise of impact.
  • Itemise budget requests - Be sure to itemise your budget as specifically as you can. This will help funding sources give partial funding if they want to contribute but cannot afford the full submission.
  • Encourage outreach - People like to see their money impact people outside of a small insular community. If you engage in outreach to the community in any way, you become more of a public good that people would more readily fund. Therefore, make sure you go on field trips to help people out in any way you can, and you document it.

Keeping your revenue streams sustainable is about trust. When a body provides money to you for the first time, they are trusting that you will put the money to good use. When you apply again, you have a track record that they can point to when deliberating. If you can demonstrate your organisation to be reliable and effective with the money you are given, they are more likely to approve more ambitious projects and less likely to give you nothing. Thus, it is of paramount importance that you gain the trust of these organisations. In addition to improving the relationships you have with existing funding sources, you should continue to look to expand. In fact, perhaps the most important strategy is to diversify your income. Funding from a particular source can dry up for a variety of reasons, and it is extremely difficult to run a chapter when your only revenue stream has dried up for a reason outside your control. Therefore, even though it can be easy to be satisfied with a single source of income if it fulfils your chapter’s needs, you shouldn’t be complacent. Try and get money from as many sources as possible, especially if it means you are asking for less from each one. This will help your chapter develop relationships with multiple entities whom you can ask for more, and who can protect you if one group stops giving you money.

Financial Buffer

While I understand that talking about finances may be boring and not what you want to hear, it is the single greatest barrier to your chapter’s prosperity. Therefore, to ensure that your chapter continues to prosper even after you leave, you should consider creating a financial buffer. As we discussed above, rainy days happen. Thus, it is prudent to prepare yourselves for the inevitable. In years of prosperity, your chapter should consider putting a significant amount of money aside and to dip into this fund only when absolutely necessary. The amount varies wildly based on chapter size, reliability of funding and projects, but $1,000-$2,000 would probably be a good minimum to start with. Again, this money shouldn’t be touched unless absolutely necessary, and should be protected as much as possible by focusing on acquiring reliable sources of funding.

Starting strong

As I’m sure you know, chapters gain most of their new members at the start of the year, as the incoming freshman class joins and the sophomores who spent their first year drinking begin to sober up. This gives you a small but significant window to grow your chapter significantly. Another important matter to note is that membership shrinkage is inevitable. It is impossible and impractical to assume that all (or even most) of the students that attend the first meeting with free pizza will be as passionate and driven about your chapter as you are. Thus, you should prepare for your membership to shrink as the year develops. The passionate will weed themselves out, hopefully leaving you with a fantastic and manageable core team on whom you count to complete your projects. However, while you can encourage passionate people to stay by being organised and energised, it is largely a numbers game of how many people heard of you and attended when they were looking for something to fill your time.

All this means that you should really try to start strong when the year starts. Market your chapter as much as you can and plan what you want to do to bring new people in and retain them. The start of the year is an important antidote to an attendance crisis as the academic year draws to a close.

Finding a successor

If you are the leader of your chapter, you need to think about who will take on your legacy. If you are just starting out, one thing you will quickly realise is that not everyone is as passionate as you are. This isn’t their fault - it is more than okay to have different priorities. However, there will be those who, like you, are passionate about your chapter and want to be more involved. It is of great importance to find and cultivate those passions, especially in people younger than you. As we have seen chapters go dormant across the country, the main culprit is that a passionate leader graduates and no one steps up to continue their momentum. However, with some deliberate thought, this unfortunate effect can be mitigated. The first step to finding people to eventually take over is to bring them into the organisation of your chapter. If you see a spark (I can’t really be more specific than that) then be sure to give them power and influence. It can be difficult to relinquish power, especially over something you have created. However, if you allow these people to make decisions, you can ensure a few things:

  • You allow them to feel like they are making a difference. This in turn helps them take on more responsibility for the success of your organisation.
  • You can help teach them the internal structure of the executive management. This would help a transition easier down the line.
  • You can determine their leadership style, and whether they would be a good fit in an executive role.
  • They can prove themselves to you as someone who is reliable and competent. As a result, you can leave confident that your chapter is in good hands

Once you have started this cycle, you should keep up the delegation. Give people as much work as you feel like they can handle, even if it would just be easier done by you. This is a learning curve for everyone, and hopefully people will soon have the knowledge to perform most of the running of the chapter on their own. Furthermore, if you see others who are interested in leadership, bring them on board. You should be sure not to play favourites and have a clear successor, since that can deter other people from stepping up. Give everyone an opportunity to lead and prove themselves, and while not everyone will be able to commit to the responsibility, some will come forward and keep your legacy alive.

Creating a Culture

This is the most wishy-washy, vague, difficult advice I can give you. It is, however, crucial if you want your chapter to have sustained momentum. I also promise not to use the word synergy or tell you to follow your heart for the rest of the article. Every organisation has a culture, and yours is no different. If you want your members to be proactive and present, you will need there to be an expectation that they will be so. There must also not be a toxic culture based on blame or bullying. There is a blessed middle ground that I am sure you have experienced before, when an entire team works in synergy harmony. That is what you should be aiming for. There is no magic formula to achieving this, but it rests squarely on you. You will create a culture only through concerted effort and leading by example. If you demonstrate hard work, presence and support in your interactions with the members, and you encourage those around you to do the same, then a culture will slowly be created. Cultures last a long time. If you focus on your own actions, people are more likely to see you and step up as they see that people believe in your organisation. Again, this is incredibly vague advice, but it is something you should consider as you plan meetings and consider how you should react to inevitable problems that arise.

Point of Contact

Dan Hirst