Early on in my career I worked for a metropolitan Chamber and when I started the job, times were good — really good. Membership was way up, the staff was growing, and we were spending money like it grew on trees.

Then, something happened in the early 2000s. Membership took a nosedive, 19 staff left, the board disengaged, and the Chamber lost $1 million of its reserves. In hindsight, I can say I was there when Chambers of Commerce started losing their grip on the marketplace.

Twelve years later, Chambers are still trying to weather the ‘perfect storm’—the culmination of economic decline, demographic shifts, and the emergence of a technology-driven economy, which has redefined the concept of membership and shifted the value of Chambers everywhere.

Is relevance and sustainability possible? Absolutely. But you must we willing to change.  As Marshall Goldsmith would put it, ‘What got you here won’t get you there.’ Everything about the way we live, work, and do business has changed in recent years.

Changes Chambers Must Make to Engage

Furthermore, by 2015 the Baby Boomers will cede the majority of the workforce to Generation Y (currently ages 18-31).  Chances are, your Chamber has survived because the Boomers have nurtured it and loved it for the past several decades. Here again, Goldsmith’s manta rings true: The Boomers got you here, but they won’t get you there. Your Chambers’ relevance and future lies within the next generation. Here are the key changes your Chamber must make to engage younger generations, stay relevant, and prosper for generations to come:

  1. Focus on Outcomes
    Chambers are notorious for listing the features of membership. ‘Join now for a listing in the membership directory, networking opportunities, and insurance discounts!’ These are merely features of membership. It’s like saying a tissue is white, square, and you use it to blow your nose.But if that same tissue company tells you that by using their brand of tissue you can help stop the spread of germs by 99%, that’s an outcome. Now you can better understand the difference between this tissue and all other tissues on the market and you feel good about making that purchase.Do your homework and communicate the outcomes of membership. When you can tout that ‘60% of members report their membership has resulted in a new business opportunity’ you have actual proof that a membership in your Chamber is valuable.
  2. Better Benefits
    Nine times out of 10, Chambers sell memberships based on two premises: networking opportunities and advocacy.  However, neither can be considered member benefits. Think about it. I can network with anyone, anywhere via technology. I don’t need to pay dues to access your Chamber’s network. And while advocacy is important, I benefit from your Chamber’s advocacy efforts whether I’m a member or not.The most valuable benefit your Chamber can provide is something I can’t get anywhere else and something I feel I must have to succeed.  It’s pure economics, people. We’re living in an era of increased competition (via technology) and limited revenue (post-recession). If you want to compete, your Chamber has to provide must-have membership, appealing to the immediate needs of the marketplace by providing something valuable and eliminating the competition by providing something exclusive to your members. Membership must have its benefits.
  3. Diversify
    Your Chamber needs to know what younger generations care about because without them your association will struggle to survive. It starts with shared leadership. Move away from hierarchy and traditional leadership models to focus on collaboration, teamwork, and inspire ownership among the membership. Ask your Chamber’s leadership to spend time with younger generations. Invite younger generations to sit on your board. Empower a group of influential emerging professionals to act as your ambassadors and sounding board. Invest in technology.Your Chamber will be relevant to Generations X (1965-1981) and Y (1982-1995) when it focuses on their three primary values: the opportunity to lead, learn, and make a difference — and the ability to do all of these things via technology.
  4. Adapt
    The most successful organizations are those that can develop new markets and master the art of adaptation. They go where the market goes and they aren’t afraid to break tradition or kill off sacred cows. Regardless of what curve balls come your Chamber’s way, strive to handle the change with ease, innovate, and introduce new solutions.
  5. Members First
    Successful Chambers of the 21st century will be those that focus less on the inner-workings of the Chamber and turn their attention to their members instead. Many Chambers make the mistake of spending countless hours planning events, sitting in committee meetings, and focusing on community initiatives. Right now, the members must come first. Provide great service and benefits and work hard to protect your member interests and do an exceptional job of communicating how you do both. Be a positive force – not to the community at-large – but to your community of members. Your members are your customers and without them, your Chamber will surely fail. Be true to your members and always put their needs and interests first.

I truly believe Chambers are more relevant today than ever before. Our entire country is on the brink of the largest shift in human capital in history. Most of our nation’s companies are vastly unprepared for the loss of their leadership and most loyal talent and need our Chambers to take the lead on workforce development, leadership development, and economic development.

 

It’s vitally important Chambers are around for our generation and the generations to come.