Chapters: Possibilities at Risk

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The previous issue of Notes from the Second Floor began the conversation of “One AIA.” This issue continues the discussion and focuses on the AIA chapters, and the challenges facing chapter executive directors. If working better together is an expected outcome of the Repositioning Initiative, there should be no higher priority than the need to improve the health and welfare of our chapters, and the working conditions facing many of our component executives.


Paul W. Welch, Jr., Hon. AIA

A cursory examination of the AIA’s chapter boundaries across America is not unlike reviewing political reapportionment. Chapter boundaries seem to wander aimlessly around cities and towns, geographical and topical formations, in search of new ZIP Codes to incorporate. Occasionally, chapters will quarrel when boundaries conflict as cities and townships expand into previously undeveloped landscapes. Unfortunately, once new AIA chapters are created and chapter boundaries constructed, they seem to be irrevocable as the decisions are seldom revisited.

Created with an enhanced desire for increased local focus and control, newly formed chapters had an abundance of volunteers willing to step into leadership positions. However, for many chapters, times have changed. Now, faced with declining or negligible membership growth, many chapters have recycled their leadership to the point of exhaustion. Additionally, declining resources have reduced staff hours, or resulted in staff being laid off entirely. Understandably, these challenges have severe negative consequences on the component’s ability to deliver member services. The difference between what the members expect and what they actually receive is having a significant chilling effect on membership retention and recruitment.

While the skills and competencies of component executives very, they all share a passion for architecture and advancing the value of design within the communities they serve. Unfortunately, many component executives toil many more hours than they are compensated, work without benefit of a position description, seldom experience an annual review of performance, salary or compensation, nor do they receive any employment benefits such as health insurance or retirement. Given the difficulty of increasing dues, local chapters frequently look to raising non-dues revenue to partially or fully compensate the component executive. As members fail to renew their membership due to lack of services, component executives will likely find their hours reduced or even eliminated. Understandably, survival becomes a priority over member services. Regrettably, this sense of estrangement and isolation fuels negativity and erodes collaboration and harmony.

How can we achieve a unified AIA when our chapters are struggling to find a new generation of leaders, experiencing declining membership, while also grappling with increased state and federal corporate regulations and responsibilities? Considering increased competition among chapters, an overstressed dues structure, and a marketplace increasingly complicated by changes in technology and project delivery, how do we resource our component executives to meet the challenges faced at the local level?

The Repositioning Initiative provides a unique opportunity to address both problems. We need to review the alignment of AIA chapters, the services they provide, and the commitment of AIA to make good the promise to local components that they will be the “touch stone for member satisfaction.” Furthermore, we should not be content until we provide a culture of innovation and support for our chapters and our component executives. We should do all we can to provide them the tools and resources they need, and to strengthen the value of AIA membership at the local level. We need to be sensitive to the problems of local chapters. After all, they are chartered by the AIA and the AIA brand should clearly communicate the importance that chapters contribute to the member/value equation. The failure of any component to deliver on member services should not be an option, since the failure of any one affects us all.

“Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Our conversation regarding the concept of one AIA and component realignment continues in the next issue. Please take the time and opportunity to participate. Your thoughts are appreciated.



Paul W. Welch Jr., Hon. AIA

Paul W. Welch Jr., Hon. AIA and Executive Vice President of the AIA California Council (AIACC), is the former interim Executive Vice President and CEO of the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C.

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  1. avatar
    Ian Merker

    As the member of a component with a large geographical area, I could see the benefit of à la carte services for membership. Opportunities for networking and in-person contact in the profession is valuable, but hard to come by in outlying areas. Without this value presented in equitable access, there’s no sense in paying for it. I believe Mike Malinowski has a business model for dues payment that makes this pencil.

  2. avatar
    Sarah Testa

    The discussion of “non-dues review” has been beaten to death in my opinion. As the Component Executive for Central New York, I and my counter-parts in New York work quite hard to deal with leadership, each in our own way. I think the biggest problem is getting the Architects to realize that we THE STAFF are what makes this organization worth something.

    I think I hold the record for Vendor presentations, and Central New York is genuinely happy with my efforts but I’m forever in the back-seat and questioned whenever I make a suggestion on improvements. Every year, when the Board is redone (we’ve taken advantage of the Emerging Professionals putting them on the Board), I send an email out that states, They are the Architects, I am the Staff, and whatever initiative they take on, they should depend on me to do the follow up. 98% of the time that works really well, it’s the 2% that’s the problem.

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