A well-worn adage describes collaboration as an unnatural act between unwilling parties. If you’ve ever tried to come to consensus on an issue with the Sierra Club, Tea Party or AFL-CIO, you’re probably nodding knowingly.
There’s inherent difficulty in getting independent groups with different perspectives and motivations to band together, but what about alliances between chambers and similar business associations?
To an outsider looking at our memberships, core principles, and the composition of our boards, chamber coalitions might seem totally natural, even easy. But they’re not easy. Chambers and other business associations have often rallied behind the U.S. Chamber on federal policy issues, but as an industry, our ability to present a united front at the local, regional or state level is episodic at best.
During my decade leading public policy for Greater Louisville Inc. (GLI) we recognized the value of a coalition approach. We partnered with the local chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, the African American Business Alliance and the Hispanic Latino Business Council to lobby on issues ranging from a prevailing wage ordinance, which would have created disadvantages for small and minority businesses bidding on city projects, to opposing a project labor agreement on the construction of a downtown arena. Working together on policy issues strengthened our relationships and made it easier to work together on other ventures, including a business-focused Mayoral Candidates Forum.
Our experience with chamber and business partners at the state level also proved to be worthwhile. In 2010, realizing that chambers of commerce from urban areas across the state shared similar policy goals at the state level, GLI organized a Metro Chambers Coalition. It brought together the policy staffs from Louisville, Lexington, Northern Kentucky, Paducah, Owensboro, Bowling Green and Ashland, along with the Kentucky Chamber, to discuss a common agenda. While not every chamber agreed on every issue, we were able to work collectively on some important business-related legislation, including worker’s compensation reform, improving educational standards and an angel investment tax incentive program.
The kind of cooperative relationship chambers enjoy in Kentucky is emerging as a trend in other parts of the country.
Coalitions can be forced by necessity or they can emerge over time. What started more than eight years ago as a get-together among neighboring chamber executives in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex has evolved into the 80-member North Texas Chamber of Commerce Executives Association. Until last year, this peer network was primarily a forum for sharing best practices. That’s when a pending vote on vital infrastructure transformed the group into a policy coalition.
At issue was a ballot measure that would move $2 billion from the state’s rainy day fund to be invested in critical water projects. The referendum was strongly supported by a majority of the Texas legislature and championed by Speaker of the House Joe Straus. However, 16 legislators voted against the measure, including 10 from the North Texas region, who felt that the private sector, not the state, should fund water infrastructure projects.
Water is a critical issue for businesses and communities of all sizes across the region. “This was not an urban, suburban or rural issue, it was a business issue with region-wide implications.” says Jay Barksdale, senior V.P. of government relations for the Dallas Regional Chamber.
With the launch of a public referendum campaign planned for early summer, chamber leaders knew they needed to do something to quiet the critics, and they knew no one voice could carry the day. “We wanted elected officials who were opposed to the proposal to hear from their constituents about how important these water projects are to our part of the state,” says Barksdale. “Even if we didn’t convince them to support it, we at least wanted to counteract the negative messages.”
The North Texas Chamber Executives held a meeting where information and materials about the ballot initiative were provided. A representative from the advocacy group leading the public campaign was on hand to answer questions and rally support. Attendees were encouraged to return to their communities and use email, local media and social channels to raise awareness and spur engagement about the issue.
In late September, the Dallas Chamber hosted a luncheon with Speaker Straus. Prior to lunch, the Speaker met with the regional legislative delegation, local elected officials and representatives from the North Texas Chamber Executives. Following the meeting, they held a joint press conference endorsing the referendum. “It was important to present a united front,” said Barksdale. “There was significant media coverage of the press conference, and we demonstrated the business community in North Texas was solidly behind the water project initiative.”
The referendum passed in November by a comfortable margin. As a result, the legislature is planning a similar proposal in the upcoming session to move rainy day funds into a special fund for transportation projects. The coalition built around the water vote plans to use its collective voice again to back the transportation program.
Building a successful coalition involves a series of steps. If step one is defining compatible interests, steps two and three are about the resources, financial and political, and skill sets each prospective partner will bring to the coalition. Four chambers in the high growth Middle Tennessee region have found that clearly defining questions about resources and roles up front is a good foundation for collaboration.
The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce created a regional partnership focused on public policy with the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce, the Robertson County Chamber of Commerce, and the Hendersonville Area Chamber of Commerce to form Middle Tennessee Business Voice.
Partner chambers participate in an annual policy survey that helps shape a common legislative agenda for the region’s business community. The coalition uses an online tool administered by the Nashville Area Chamber to track state legislative issues and facilitate communication with elected officials. The Nashville Area Chamber’s advocacy staff also works during the session under the Middle Tennessee Business Voice banner to advance the regional agenda. Each chamber’s members are considered advocacy members of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, which represents the interests of more than 5,000 Middle Tennessee businesses in the Tennessee General Assembly through its lobbying, research and staff resources.
In exchange, the partner chambers share the cost of advocacy work, increasing the membership value of all four chambers, creating efficiencies across organizations, and strengthening the collective influence of Middle Tennessee businesses on state policy issues. Outside the area of legislative advocacy, each organization retains its own membership and benefits. In addition, each organization continues to have complete control over its own legislative positions.
Adam Lister, Nashville Area Chamber director of public policy, gave this example of the coalition’s impact: In 2012, the partnership worked to pass “impact-to-commerce” legislation that directs the legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee to provide an impact-to-commerce analysis for legislation referred to the House and Senate commerce committees. This ensures bills are studied not only for their impact on government but also for their impact on commerce or jobs.
The Nashville Area Chamber initiated this legislation with its advocacy partners as a way to put more information into the hands of state decision makers. In addition, chamber members will have a better idea about how a bill might impact their bottom lines before the General Assembly takes final action. Previously, each legislative proposal was studied for its impact on government, but no consideration was given to its impact on Tennessee’s economy. That changed on Jan. 1, 2014 when the law took effect.
“The advocacy relationship enables our members to have a stronger voice in the Tennessee General Assembly,” said Rutherford County Chamber President Paul Latture. “This partnership is an additional benefit that will help keep our members informed and will let them know when their voice needs to be heard.”
The benefits of coalition building go beyond increased power in your public policy efforts. Other key advantages include:
Choosing to lead or join a coalition is both a rational and an emotional decision. Rationally, you must consider whether your effectiveness and ability to attain your goals will be enhanced or harmed by participation in a coalition. Emotionally, you must be willing to invest the time it takes to understand your partners, otherwise cooperating is bound to feel like more trouble than it’s worth.
As the political climate becomes more polarized and our communities become more fragmented, the ability to create and manage an effective coalition is an increasingly essential skill for any chamber executive. When goals are compatible and interests are aligned, forming a coalition can be productive and beneficial.
Without a doubt, coalition building and keeping the collaboration working effectively can be a lot of work. But the gains can be well worth the effort. As Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”
Carmen Hickerson is community advancement advisor for ACCE. She previously served for more than a decade as V.P. of public affairs and communications for Greater Louisville, Inc.
Download this article: Collaborate! (3)