Last week I spent some time after my presentation to Space Coast SQL talking to Kathleen Branch, the chapter leader, about what works and doesn’t work, and whether she was succeeding or not. We don’t seem to talk about that much publicly. When I was on the PASS Board we measured success in the number of chapters and didn’t monitor much beyond that. That conversation reminded me to write some notes on my take on chapters:

  • Finding speakers has gotten easier, but perhaps not easy. Virtual presentations often fill in, but there is no substitute for having a real person in the room. Job one for chapter leaders is to find speakers.
  • Finding sponsors…harder? Start by looking to the local SQLSaturday sponsor list and all your local staffing companies. My suggestion is to figure your budget for a month, then plan to split that between a staffing company and a tool/service vendor.
  • Ask/plead to have sponsors appear in person, via Skype, or a recorded 3-5 minute message. Attendees will get more out of it and so will the sponsors. Give attendees an “opt-in” option and send those contacts that do opt-in back to the sponsor. Be sure to send a follow up email and a thank you on Twitter. Sponsors love happy tweets.
  • Tell attendees the story every month. Kendal Van Dyke does this better than anyone I know, ask him how. Remember that they care about that night, followed by easily access events like SQLSaturday, and have the hardest time connecting at all with the idea of PASS.  Grassroots means local focus first, put your time there, but give PASS the one minute plug too.
  • I don’t know that I’ve ever seen numbers, but I bet the average group has 10 attendees.
  • Do numbers matter? Sure, but as much as other things. I’d measure the health of a chapter by asking if they are sustaining attendance. That’s healthy. Growing is hard and takes work and imagination, and sometimes it’s just not there. The single biggest variable in attendance is the topic/speaker name, nothing else comes close.
  • Be consistent in your marketing strategy. Got prizes to raffle off? Highlight that! Free food? Pictures! Don’t forget day before and day of reminders.
  • The idea of SQLSaturday as a membership drive doesn’t in my experience translate to more chapter attendees. It probably helps sustain the chapter – biggest list means more chance of X attendees being interested in any particular topic – but it doesn’t have the impact I’d hoped. Maybe someone can figure it out. Which isn’t to say doing a SQLSat isn’t worthwhile, clearly it is!
  • Always do some networking. My favorite is to talk about networking for a minute and how most in IT think they aren’t good at it, then I add that are great conversationalists and really bad at saying hello. Then I ask them to talk to the person next to them. Never had it fail, and a lot quicker and less stressful than “stand up and say hello”
  • If you’re in a small city consider teaming up with the .Net group, and also
  • All groups are different, and all seem to have one or two things that work for them. Go watch some other groups, you’ll learn a lot.

I know PASS has regional mentors, but it’s always felt inconsistent. PASS can’t send money, though surely it could do more to help match up sponsors and speakers, but what it could do is train these leaders. Training at the Summit, new leader training, ongoing education. Some of that gets done, but not in what I’d call a serious way.  Imagine if someone decided that the way to have an impact was to train the chapter leaders. Teach them networking, marketing, sponsor management. Monitor the numbers and if a chapter is declining, engage. They’d get something out of it and in return, everyone would benefit.

I’m paraphrasing, but Kathleen says her approach is that she is committed to being there and learning, and if she can get 10, or 5, or 20, then those that want to learn that topic were served. I totally agree. Work on the marketing and try to reach more – because we can train 20 as easily as 10 – but don’t waste energy feeling bad because you only trained 10. 10 is a win. Celebrate those that take a chance to give up a weekend evening, do your best, and on with life.

That also reminds me of a phrase I’ve used for years when I attend an event and see something that doesn’t get executed quite as well as I’d hope. It’s homey, perhaps too parental and too familiar, but it’s what I use: train my people. Even a bad event – which is really, really rare – typically clears that bar. We’re there to teach and share and if the coffee runs out or the signs weren’t perfect, we can work on that, but the pass or fail comes down to the training. Not so different than what Kathleen thinks, just said differently, and less eloquently.

I appreciate and admire the effort it takes to keep a chapter running year over year. It’s hard work, worth doing, and not as sexy as running a SQLSaturday, but it’s so worth doing.