A new upswing in social media and online networking has seemed to overshadow a once thriving segment of American businesses; the time-honored tradition of joining a Chamber of Commerce. But are companies still getting the same benefits and opportunities they once were? Or is the shift to online media gradually making the chamber of commerce obsolete?
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the world’s largest not-for-profit federations, representing more than 3 million businesses and organizations in the United States. Companies that make up the chamber range from Fortune 500 companies to home-based operations consisting of one or two people—and approximately 96 percent of the chamber membership consists of businesses with fewer than 100 employees. Advocates believe that when a company is active in its local chamber, that it’s doing the right thing for the community, and increasing the chances of its very own success. And while there is a great deal of evidence to show the impact and presence of chambers in their communities, it may be hard to find data that supports whether they truly help businesses grow and thrive. Therefore, is this there a way to determine the true value to companies in terms of consumer outcomes in being an active member? Do people support businesses because they are members? And what are some of the advantages and perhaps disadvantages? To answer these questions, let’s look how the chamber of commerce began, it’s mission, and whether or not they provide a positive impact on consumers and their communities.
The U.S. chamber of commerce was founded in 1912 in Washington D.C., with a mission to create an environment where businesses could prosper through inspiration, advocacy, and support. Chambers are now organized at local, state, and regional levels, and all of them may hold membership in the national organization that’s controlled by a board of directors; with a chair and president elected by the board each year. They host networking events, fundraisers, workshops, and other activities, all with the aim of connecting local business owners with one another. Among the two primary functions of a chamber of commerce—first, it acts as a spokesperson to the local business, and secondly, it works to advance the economic, civic, and cultural wellbeing of the community. The board often looks to its members to help define policy on national issues that are critical to business around the country as well. Once a policy is developed, the chamber informed congress and the administration of the business community's recommendations on legislative issues and government policies. But times have indeed changed; and many companies are beginning to question the real value in this national network.
Let’s take a look at the benefits of being a chamber member. There was certainly a time when chambers had great value and many positive effects on local businesses. For one, it conveyed to consumers that a company uses good business practices, was involved in their community, and cared about their reputation with the public. Being a member was also seen as a good business practice—as it shows local consumers that their company was invested in making things better for the community. Most businesses benefit in some way from membership, and small businesses often benefit dramatically from the power of joining together with their peers. Small businesses represent the largest segment, by number, of most local chamber memberships—and they rely on the leverage it provides to catch the eye of it’s consumers.
While the chamber has many positive attributes, there may be a catch or two that businesses might want to consider first—namely, the investment. As it stands, the average cost of membership depends on the size and number of employees your business has, which can range between $300 and $1,000 per year. These up-front costs can often be a burden to newly-established businesses with low seed money, or those with tight budgets.
Along with the cost comes your return on investment—is it worth the money to join if you aren’t getting the benefits in a timely manner, if at all? Some businesses may think that joining their local chamber of commerce can be a magical solution that will catapult them into good graces with consumers. But this is something that can only come with time and hard work; which is important to keep in mind when creating relationships with the community. The goal is for consumers to take notice of your business, and while that can be a difficult task, the chamber does provide networking opportunities to help develop interest, expand prospects, and gain publicity.
So, should you join a chamber of commerce or not? The long-term benefits have great potential to provide a company with a positive presence in their community—but a chamber of commerce is not a one stop solution. Businesses must always keep in mind that this is a tool; and a few hundred dollars might not be a bad investment if you play your cards right.