Five Steps to Revitalizing a Dormant Chapter or Council

Stepping into an adviser position can be an intimidating prospect, but when the chapter or council needs a little TLC, the job can be downright overwhelming. Maybe there are staff members who tried, failed, and may be resentful if you are successful. Everyone has an opinion, but no one else volunteered to lead. Revitalizing a National Honor Society or student council group may be the most important contribution you make to your campus, because it will set the standard for other organizations to follow and can serve as a catalyst for culture change. Follow these five steps to get there.

 1. Set a Three-Year Goal

Impactful change does not happen overnight. Planning is the key to success, so don’t be afraid to get a little messy drawing this out on paper. Think about the major changes that need to be made, and then prioritize them. These can be split up into phases. For example, to improve member engagement and provide an incentive, my NHS chapter at John Randolph Tucker High School (JRTHS) in Richmond, VA, introduced the “points sheet” to track involvement. In the first year, the seniors were held accountable for earning their points goal, but juniors were not. In the second year of the point sheet, the juniors were also held accountable and any points not earned were required in their senior year. We did it this way to work out the bugs of the point sheet and introduce the expectation of “earning” the right to wear the NHS stole at graduation. By the third year, the points sheet became the standard, and the expectations were well-known before students were invited for membership. One of the reasons the chapter became dormant was because members were merely members so they could list something on their résumé; students weren’t learning anything or growing as young adults or leaders.

Most new businesses are not “in the black” until at least the third year, so if you try this approach, do not become discouraged if things are not running like a well-oiled machine right away. There will be resistance. There may be confusion. But there will be excitement. Be prepared to answer questions, and be comfortable with not knowing all the answers. It is OK to say, “I’m not sure, but I can find out.” (Make sure to follow up, otherwise credibility is lost.)

Listen to what students and teachers are saying about the organization and what needs to happen or change. And try it! Don’t be afraid to try new things each year. Make room in the three-year goal for trying new things.

2. Review, Revise, and Renew Your Bylaws

A chapter’s bylaws are the most important document in the organization. The bylaws should provide guidelines and clearly explain expectations. This is the go-to document to guide the group, so as you review the current bylaws, put yourself into someone else’s shoes to add perspective. Ask yourself how the bylaws could be interpreted by an angry parent looking for a loophole. Study the document and evaluate how the principal or superintendent could (or could not) support a decision made based on the bylaws. Imagine a worst-case scenario, and look for the answer using the bylaws as a guide. If the answer isn’t found or is unsatisfactory, it’s time to review, revise, and renew.

In my case, the bylaws at John Randolph Tucker High School had not been looked at in at least a decade, and no one was able to tell me where to find a copy. After an exasperated search, I finally located a dusty box with old paperwork. I made copies of the bylaws, gave them to the officers with instructions to come back with suggestions, and began reading them myself.

Now, I had had a lot of experience with contracts and knew there was a procedure to changing the bylaws, and I wanted to follow them. However, I was shocked when I read the lines that explained “blackballing” was practiced when voting. When I met with the officers, they had several questions and needed some explanations, especially about the concept of blackballing. As a group, we decided the current document was not relevant and not a good representation of National Honor Society values. We decided to look for ideas from other chapters.

It took several meetings to get the editing complete, but we were able to address all of the necessities and prepare a draft to present to the membership. During the presentation, members, of course, had questions, and I stepped in to help explain the necessity of clear, transparent bylaws. This was something completely new to this chapter. The members were excited at the prospect of becoming more engaged, but they were worried about being held accountable.

Engagement and accountability. Two sides of the coin. Everyone loves the idea of being more engaged—having more field trips, finding more opportunities to shine on campus, getting a chance to be excused from class for a school-related activity. When it came to accountability, the feelings shifted to worry and trepidation. It is important to make sure to balance accountability with transparency. If the stakeholders are aware of the expectations and guidelines, then the stakeholders are able to function positively and productively.

3. Brainstorm 100 … 1,000 … 10,000 Engagement Ideas

Revitalizing a chapter or council doesn’t have to be all work and no play. Get the officers together and discuss what is important to the school and the chapter/council. Reflect upon the pillars of your respective organization:

  • National Honor Society: Scholarship, Service, Leadership, and Character
  • Student Council: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship

Brainstorm ideas for as many activities as you can to reinforce the pillars. Meetings need to have a purpose and members need to feel like their time is not going to be wasted if they attend. If your school is anything like mine, students are stretched thin and they need to set priorities, but keep in mind that they are teenagers. It has to be fun. It has to be meaningful. It has to be something they’d tweet, snap, or Instagram (see sidebar).

One of the best ideas our chapter members developed at JRTHS was a geocaching, team-building field trip. Geocaching is a downloadable app activity where coordinates are used to hunt for hidden treasures. Once the cache is found, team members sign the log and move on to the next one. Groups of five are sent in different directions with only one member who has the coordinates. Each member has to pick a job as the strategist, navigator, motivator, implementer, and finisher. Students have a great time and learn how to work as a team. This is a field trip that has become a tradition for us, done right after induction, to bring returning members and new members together.

4. Reach Out

There are several opportunities to network within your school system and within the parent organization, the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Start by reaching out to other NHS and student council advisers in your school system. It helps to know what others are doing in your area to develop best practices. Keep in mind that each chapter is going to serve varying demographics with differing needs; however, creating a strong network of peers is an excellent first defense if things go awry.

The new NHS Adviser Online Community is an excellent resource to help answer questions, generate ideas, and find support. Community Champions monitor discussions and encourage open collaboration. The resource section is the place to find sample forms, letters, photos of activities, service project ideas, chapter management documents, etc. I was able to find and implement a wonderful document outlining officer duties and responsibilities. Check out the discussion threads for topics under the categories of Managing Your Chapter, Empowering Student Leaders, Projects and Activities, or simply introduce yourself in Just for Fun. Most topics posted receive immediate response from multiple advisers across the country. To get started, visit http://community.nassp.org/nhs-njhs.

5. Be Present

As an adviser, you have to be in the moment-not just physically there, but present in every sense, an active participant in the organization. This seems obvious, but look around your campus and count how many of your colleagues are sucked into their phones. Those people are not present. If the cellphone has to be out, actively use it to promote the chapter. For example, take selfies between classes to show off an “A” on a test or a college acceptance letter. Engage with members and share their accomplishments throughout the campus. This is an excellent opportunity to build relationships and promote the chapter in a positive light. Win-win.

The best part about advising a leadership organization is having fun while taking an active role. Lead by example, and your members will follow. Be sure to record the journey. Recruit your students to take pictures, share them, and advertise milestones with everyone. Show off the accomplishments of chapter members and the campus buzz will become all about the awesome things going on in your newly energized organization.


Carrie Weese is an NHS adviser at John Randolph Tucker High School in Richmond, VA.