“I want to get involved!” – it’s the classic line from members to their chamber of commerce.
But what does it mean?
How do you narrow down what “getting involved” looks like to you, when your chamber has so much going on?
And how does your chamber plug you into the right involvement, when everyone’s interpretation of what “getting involved” means is different?
Recently, we were able to get one of our members onto one of the chamber industry councils in our network.
It was a great opportunity, in one of the country’s fastest growing metro areas – and a subject area where they fit nicely.
We’re looking forward to seeing what kind of impact they can have, in the mix with like-minded companies working on a bigger purpose (in this case, regional logistics).
In our experience, there are few better ways to “get involved” with your chamber of commerce than serving on one of their councils and committees.
Not only do they provide niche focus, but they are a good use of your time from both your perspective… and the chamber’s.
Altruism, Benefit and Balance
At its heart, the spirit of chamber committee work is getting involved, and giving back.
Finding an area where you have expertise and energy that provides a bigger value to other chamber members, and your community.
That kind of contribution can be incredibly rewarding.
But, is it all about giving?
No, it can’t be.
As business people, we are all finding less and less time to spend on activities that don’t yield direct return.
That’s not to say you go into a committee looking for how it can benefit you – but while you’re there, you’re allowed to look around.
Finding that balance is so important, because if either direction is not showing value, your “getting involved” will not be a long-term gig.
First, the work – and your efforts – are meaningful, not only to your chamber, but generally to your community. If you’re looking for a purposeful way to spend your time and give back, your efforts won’t be wasted.
Second, we talk often about how the chamber has already gathered your markets for you. Councils are where that happens. What types of companies are you trying to network with? Your chamber may actually have a council or committee already set up that gathers those people together.
Engagement in your chamber’s councils is not prospecting, however.
If you’re going to be involved, you need to bring value to support the council’s mission.
But they’re a viable place to build strong relationships that go far beyond your typical networking events.
Think about how strong your relationships are with people who you’ve worked with “in the trenches,” on a job or a project.
They just naturally have a stronger foundation than the ones that come from bumping into someone at a mixer.
Your chamber’s councils are a great place to connect and build relationships with professionals who have similar interests, exist in your space and are community-minded (like you!).
Find Your Niche (Your Chamber of Commerce Has Built It For You!)
So, which committee do you join?
Since you’re looking to provide value, you want to find something that’s in your purview.
For industry councils, which many chambers have, you generally must have a direct connection to be considered.
Does that mean if you’re not in the industry, you’re out?
Many service providers specialize in certain areas.
Yes, every B2B company wants to get in front of manufacturers as often as possible, so manufacturing councils are usually a pretty closed loop.
But does your marketing agency, accounting firm or legal practice specialize in manufacturing, enough so that you can show up to every meeting with significant value to offer? Then it’s worth the ask.
The same goes for other industry councils, whether they’re logistics/supply chain, agribusiness, tourism, tech, military and all of the others that chambers around the country offer, generally related to strengths in their specific communities.
If you’re legitimately in the industry, you should definitely be involved, because that council is developing policy, and if you’re not in the room, they’re doing it without you.
If you service the industry, then you’ll need to make your case.
Chamber staff can tell the difference between an offer to add value and someone looking for leads.
Unfortunately, the fastest way for a chamber to lose their actual industry members’ interest is letting people into the room who aren’t providing value.
Try to go to a manufacturing council meeting and make a sales pitch. They’ll run you out of town on a rail. They don’t mess around.
That’s obviously not good, so make sure you’re saddled up to bring WAY more value than you get to the group.
Blue Ocean Strategy
If you subscribe to the Blue Ocean Strategy, as we do, committees can be a great tool for segmenting your niche and reaching your target audience directly.
The committee can’t BECOME your blue ocean, because it’s critical that you’ve already demonstrated work in that industry and expertise enough to bring value.
But if you’ve already done the work, and can justify to the chamber that you belong, it’s a great place to spend your time, and become a go-to resource.
We spend a lot of time working with companies doing international trade and have developed a niche in that area.
As a result, we’re able to provide, on the business development side, significant value for manufacturers, logistics companies and government agencies engaged with the chamber.
We also have a network of people who are experts in that area – attorneys, banks, brokers and architects, for example – who specialize and provide significant value.
That didn’t happen by joining committees and learning from them… It happened by working that niche network over many years and then making it available to chamber conversations.
Put the time in to segment your target audience (which we believe you should be doing anyway, regardless of any chamber involvement), and then seeing where that market is gathered so you can be a resource.
General Committees – Helping Where You Can Help
The great thing about chamber councils and committees is that there is generally a place for everyone.
Chambers of commerce, with limited staff, need to take care of hundreds or even thousands of members – while dealing with big picture issues like community development, workforce, tourism, and everything else they work on every day.
Needless to say, any help they can get from their members is big, and always appreciated.
So, many chambers have committees dedicated to areas like marketing, events and membership.
These are great places to get involved if you just want to be a part of something bigger than your own interests in the chamber.
For everything that chambers need to accomplish throughout the year, they also need to grow membership, put on worthwhile events (that are sponsorable!) and tell their story in a positive way, if they’re going to stay in business.
Often, given its resources – especially small to medium sized chambers – in the best interest of the organization, they hire generalists…. People who can tackle the many different facets of a chamber’s work.
So, when it comes to event planning, marketing and member recruitment, you have expertise that the chamber can really use.
Can they do those things? Absolutely. They need to.
Is it what they’re trained in, spend time learning best practices and do day-in and day-out? Not necessarily.
You can provide significant value to the chamber, and position yourself as a leader and forward-thinker by bringing your expertise and energy to those kinds of committees.
They can be a lot of work, sure.
And they’re not, unfortunately, always well thought out and mission driven.
I’ve seen far too many over time where the events committee, for example, is mainly just to get people to volunteer to man tables and sell 50/50 splits at events.
If that’s worth your time, then go for it. But if it’s not, and you have more to offer, never be afraid to suggest something new.
Helping to make these committees work better is a huge help, in itself.
Anomaly Chamber of Commerce Committees
Two committees I’ve seen pop up in chambers from time to time that I haven’t seen many wrap their heads around are workforce and Buy Local.
These are two arenas where chambers definitely need to play, but what they actually do in them can be elusive.
Setting up a committee in these areas is a logical first step, and both usually get good participation.
But here’s the catch…
The people and companies that show up for those committees are many times people that want something.
Workforce committees are often filled with HR people looking for workers – something that’s perhaps at more of a fever pitch now than ever before… Indeed, we’ve talked about workforce challenges on every single episode of the IT’S ALL ABOUT WHO YOU KNOW Podcast.
Buy Local committees are generally filled with small businesses questioning why they can’t get into the bigger companies in town to sell them stuff.
Both can have significant impact if done right, but both can be significantly frustrating because of the challenges they’re trying to tackle.
Because, think about the challenges that those two committees are trying to tackle…
While there are tools available from the community or the government to help in those areas, the solutions for each are really found within the individual companies.
The chamber can advocate for, and even help design, the best workforce training programs, but in reality, worker recruitment and retention rely much more heavily on the environment created by the individual employers than what’s happening externally.
I know that’s a provocative statement to employers who “can’t find workers” right now, but it’s not inaccurate.
A chamber committee’s work can help lead the horse to water, but right now, if you’re paying $15/hour and your competitor down the street has a sign out front offering $16/hr, no community workforce agenda or governmental program is going to keep your employees from walking down the street after a bad shift.
There are many, many challenges in workforce right now – the committee discussion is important.
I’m writing this just to help you manage expectations… If you think a workforce committee is a good fit because you need workers, it’s probably the wrong place.
If you have solutions, however… I’m certain any chamber of commerce in the U.S. or Canada will gladly take your input.
The same goes for a Buy Local committee… Sales is a process, and companies are increasingly bad at it, as a generation of dyed-in-the-wool salespeople are retiring, and a culture of believing you can hit your numbers via LinkedIn and blast e-mail from the comfort of your living room rises.
There’s nothing a Buy Local committee can do that will help poor sales processes get in the right doors.
Is it a noble cause that chambers need to be involved in? Absolutely.
But should you expect to change the world by getting involved? That’s a big lift.
We mention these committees because from time-to-time they pop up, and often seem like good opportunities to get involved.
Think about the real value you can bring to a committee like these, and whether you’ll be able to get something done without spinning your wheels.
And think about your time spent…
If you’re avidly looking for workers, is a roomful of other people looking for workers the right network for you to be building?
If you’re avid about buy local because it benefits you if people do… Is your time well-utilized sitting around a table with other people also wanting to sell stuff? Or would you be better off using other chamber resources to hunt down those big fish and get in front of them?
In the chamber world, spinning wheels gets tiresome quickly.
And when you’re volunteering your time, it’s easy to not sign in or show up for that 10 a.m. meeting if you have other stuff going on that morning.
These “All in this Together” committees pop up from time to time, often ad hoc. Make sure you consider their mission and the value of you being involved – which could all be substantial if done right – before jumping in.
Managing Expectations (Yours and Your Chamber of Commerce’s)
Which leads to having a good understanding of what you expect from the committee – and what the chamber expects from you.
First and foremost: Don’t sign up to participate in something you can’t do. Looks very bad, and will do you more harm than not signing up at all.
Be honest with yourself.
Remember one important thing… When it comes to chambers of commerce, there’s still some of that traditional movies 1950’s scuttlebutt feel to it, like you’d see in Pleasantville or WandaVision.
Nothing official, but certainly people kibbutz.
If you’re regularly not somewhere where you said you’d be, people will notice, and people will talk.
You’ll never find out about it, but rest assured, it happens.
So, make sure that when you commit to something, it’s something you can accomplish – and understand what the committee expects from you ahead of time.
That being said, you’re giving your time, so you have every right to have expectations of the committee.
That can be as simple as well-run meetings, scheduled well in advance, and a mission-driven agenda with deliverables, but don’t overestimate the chamber staff’s time and energy when it comes to moving things forward.
None of us have time to attend “good meetings” for “good discussion” very often.
The goal is to make sure that both you and the chamber feel like your committee work is a great fit, which makes for the best relationship going forward.
You provide value. Being on the committee provides value to you.
It’s a great use of your time to get involved.
Quick Plug for Small Business
For eight years, I oversaw the Government Affairs Committee for the regional chamber in Buffalo.
For the past three, I have run the Advocacy Committee for the chamber in Niagara County, NY, and I sit on the Policy Committee for Amplify Clearwater. I often consult with various chambers about their advocacy efforts.
One thing I’ve learned about these committees over time is that they are often devoid of small business representation, particularly from “Main Street.”
Typically, it’s the bigger fish among the members who are involved, which makes sense because in many cases that’s why they’re members… To capitalize on the collective voice of the chamber.
But, if you haven’t noticed, small business has gotten pushed around in policymaking the past several years – and maybe you could justify saying, decades. (Carol Roth’s excellent book – The War on Small Business – provides a great chronology of this).
For as often as politicians pound their fists on the podium and affirm that, “Small business is the backbone of our economy”… Well, let’s just say there are few whose words match their actions.
Because small businesses are TERRIBLE at organizing.
There are plenty of reasons for it, the most obvious being that we’re all super busy. All the time. And the more challenges that are put in front of us… The busier we need to be.
Engaging with a chamber of commerce advocacy/policy committee is a great way to answer that challenge.
Yes, you will spend a lot of time talking about big picture state and federal items that may or may not affect your bottom line.
Being in the room, can you help develop advocacy efforts that will benefit small businesses by either protecting them from regulation and cost, or give them opportunities to grow? Yes, you can.
But if no small businesses are in the room for the discussion, I can guarantee that no small business voice will be heard.
And I can also guarantee that no chamber of commerce in America will scoff at the idea of having small businesses engaged in building a small business agenda.
If you’re a small business, don’t save the important conversations you need to have for complaining with your family at the Thanksgiving table… Get involved in your chamber’s advocacy committee and encourage a small business focus in your chamber’s agenda.
“Getting Involved” with Your Chamber of Commerce
So, what do you do now?
First, go and take a look at the committees your chamber hosts – see where there’s one that fits your expertise.
Focus on where you can best provide value, through your expertise, experience, network and resources.
Then, contact your chamber of commerce and see about joining.
Practice what I preach? Absolutely! Currently, I chair the Advocacy Committee for the Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce, I sit on the Public Policy & Transportation Council for AMPLIFY Clearwater, and I work with the Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce‘s Ambassador Committee. I’m also engaged with the Niagara USA/South Niagara Chambers of Commerce Cross-Border Committee, which has led to all kinds of mutual benefit opportunities.
If you want some help figuring out where might be a good place to spend your time and build momentum, book a 15-minute call with us here.