Good Chambers of Commerce can be excellent resources for helping your business or organization grow, and I am not sure why every business, regardless of size or structure, is not a member, or at least consider membership.
I recall the promise of inexpensive desktop computers for every business, and how they would free up much of our time, eliminate time wasters (Facebook?) and improve overall efficiency. I must have missed something as I find the time constraints placed upon me and my business, greater than ever. As owners and managers of small businesses, we rarely have additional time beyond the immediate demands of operating our business.
The need to constantly evaluate and eliminate those things which do not positively impact our bottom line is critical. One additional demand that I have found well worth the time, and I urge you to consider is joining and participating with your local Chamber of Commerce.
I well recall in 2004, when I first was thinking of starting my business Nelson Marketing Solutions, Publisher of the Town Planner, one of the first things I did was schedule an appointment to meet with the Allegany County (MD) Chamber of Commerce executive director Barbara Buehl. I was able to get honest feedback on the feasibility of my business model as well as ideas how the Chamber could support and help. Not only did Barb give me feedback and (much needed) encouragement, but she made several recommendations on how I could best leverage Chamber membership for my business. And not only did my business succeed (thanks Barb!), but later I would become President/ Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Allegany County (MD) Chamber of Commerce as well as serve on numerous committees. In 2016, I was recognized by my fellow Chamber members for one of three Outstanding Business Honorees!
My company is now a member of six different Chambers of Commerce, and although we find it difficult to be active in all six, the value of membership and being able to give back to the respective communities where we live and work is important to our core mission.
Values of Membership
· Credibility. According a research study by The Shapiro Group, Inc. and Market Street Services, when consumers know that a small business is a member of their local chamber of commerce, they are 44 percent more likely to think favorably of it and 63 percent more likely to purchase goods or services from the company in the future. Your business is perceived more positively simply because you are a member of the Chamber.
· Visibility. In today's’ cluttered world of images and messages on everything, the Chamber helps extend your reach and rise above the "noise" through branding and advertising opportunities within the Chamber. Full disclosure: we published the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce directory for five years which includes member advertising and we have or currently, partner with several Chambers of Commerce with our Town Planner print and digital program.
· Networking opportunities with a purpose. In addition to the many business and social functions, Chamber of Commerce offer various committees and leadership development and educational opportunities where you can learn and meet like-minded individuals who understand the roles that businesses play within their respective communities.
· Beyond networking… One of the benefits I have personally experienced (and you should expect similar) is the relationships I am able to build with those who I meet within the Chamber. In addition to being advocates, mentors, customers, many of the folks who I have met at one or more of the Chambers which I belong have become friends!
· Gain a voice. One of the many duties of a good Chamber of Commerce is to represent you and fellow business people at the local and state levels of government, providing input to lawmakers about issues important to your area and your business.
Yeah, but isn't it a lot of old white guys in suits? I am not sure it was ever like that, but the demographics of membership in the local Chamber of Commerce mirror the demographics of the area. Most members of the Chambers which I belong are small businesses and nonprofits. I have found the Chambers that I work with, extremely open and inclusive. They are run by a small, dedicated, professional staff, that largely depend upon their volunteer members to help get things done and make things happen. These volunteer members are, for the most part businesses just like you and me.
What Makes a good Chamber? It is my opinion there are several factors that separate great Chambers of Commerce from the not-so-great...
Vibrant membership. Great Chambers have a vibrant, engaged membership with multiple opportunities for volunteer member participation. They encourage and have opportunities for new members to be involved. They have a new member orientation program and some form of "ambassador program" process set up to help transition new members and make them feel welcome.
Not always fundraising. Great Chambers are not focused on fund raising activities to pay their expenses. While a certain amount of fundraising is needed and can provide social interaction opportunities, great Chambers rely upon growing their membership to support their organization. And, one of the strengths of a great Chamber is the diversity and opportunities that come from a large membership base.
Communication. Great Chambers communicate with their membership via email newsletter, social media, printed newsletters, and most importantly... direct interaction. And they realize that communication is a two-way street; their communication processes and methods include ways for their membership to communicate with them, and each other. Expect the Chamber director or staff to reach out to you periodically (aside from when your annual dues are needed to be paid).
Educational opportunities. Chambers should have opportunities for membership to learn and grow their business. Whether it be tax or marketing seminars, "leadership" type programs, or regular speaker forums. Look for learning options within the Chamber.
Opportunities to promote your business or organization. Great Chambers and their leadership have a culture of promoting and encouraging their membership. They understand and support the processes for networking and promotion. They are willing to help out or offer advice. They offer mentoring (either formally or informally) and they are cheerleaders for their membership.
And finally maybe your local Chamber of Commerce does not do all of these things well. That may be OK. Consider the disparity as your opportunity to join, participate, and make a difference helping the Chamber improve and grow.
OK, I am interested in joining, now what? I suggest strongly that you call up your Chamber and introduce yourself and ask the question, why should I join your Chamber? Ask to be put on their email newsletter list, and to send you a directory. Review their website. Ask to go as a guest to the next “after-hours,” or “meet-and-greet” (sort of an informal open house held at different businesses throughout the year) and see the variety of people and businesses who are already members. You will be amazed at the people who you already know that are members! No business or organization is too small or unique.
If you see the value or potential in joining and have the time, participate with a committee, or task-group that interests you. Volunteer for an event. Maximize your membership through participation. But if time constraints limit your participation, that is OK too. Joining can and will demonstrate support and reap benefits for you, your business, and your community.
About the author. Steve Nelson is owner of Nelson Marketing Solution, Cumberland, MD. The firm publishes and direct mails nine local editions of the Town Planner Calendar, and the Allegany County Destination Guide, and offers print services and graphic design. Nelson is active within the community and has served as president of the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce, Cumberland YMCA and the Rotary Club of Cumberland. He currently serves on the board of directors for the Rotary Club of Cumberland, First Peoples Community Credit Union, Tri County Council, Allegany County Museum and was appointed by the Obama administration in 2017 to serve on the C&O Canal NHP commission. He is a boy Scout leader, cyclist, skier, and fly fisherman.