ACCE’s “Horizon Initiative: Chambers 2025” has changed conversations in the chamber industry. As intended, the Eight Influences detailed in the spring 2015 issue of Chamber Executive have raised as many questions as they’ve answered. Over the next several issues we’ll explore some of the biggest questions from the Horizon Initiative report with chamber leaders from around the country. In this edition, two chamber execs who serve on ACCE’s Board of Directors and who contributed to the Horizon Initiative report tackle questions on ROI expectations, volunteer engagement and member service.
Return on Investment
The “Nature of Belonging and Gathering” and “Resource Alignment” chapters talk about members’ ROI expectations. How have your members’ ROI expectations changed?
We’ve seen ROI expectations change dramatically over the years. The era of “the good of the order” contribution has passed. Most members want tangible return for dollars spent. They want leads, they want tenants to rent their commercial space, they want visitors, and they want trained employees to fill their jobs. They invest in specific programs we offer that they feel will return a tangible asset to them. Subsequently we have found that they don’t want a dues increase but are willing to pay a greater premium for sponsorships, advertising or educational programs.
I don’t think there’s been a fundamental change in ROI expectations among our investors. Like the old adage: if you’ve seen one chamber, you’ve seen one chamber. And if you’ve seen one investor you’ve seen one investor. All have different expectations. A smaller company that depends on the local region for its revenue might care most about how we can help them expand their client base. Larger firms generally care most about the state’s budget and our future workforce.
Particularly for investors on the larger end of the spectrum, I see ROI as an evolving evaluation based on the issue of the moment. To some degree, the more successful you are, the greater the expectations increase. If you succeed this year, you’ll be expected to succeed at a higher level next year—and that’s a good thing.
The “Nature of Belonging and Gathering” chapter notes that participation in many traditional clubs has waned while newer groups like kickball leagues are thriving. How have your committees faired over the last decade?
We find that specific areas of interest and a clear charge are essential to engaging volunteers. When we structure a group or council that plays directly into an individual’s professional responsibility or personal interest, that’s where we get the most sustained engagement. One good example: we had a long-standing HR committee that languished because companies weren’t seeing any value in it. But in our current four-year planning cycle we’re hearing a lot of interest in reconstituting that group specifically to work with higher education institutions on credentialing and certification programs.
You have to give committees responsibility and focus, and you have to play to people’s interests. It’s not more scientific than that.
Our committees struggled mightily, and it’s resulted in a complete reorganization of how we do business. We collapsed three standing committees—Government Affairs, Regional Affairs and Environment, and Public Works—into one committee: Public Policy. By broadening the subject matter agenda, we ensured the continued engagement of current participants and were able to attract newer members. It also meant fewer meetings for staff to manage!
We also overhauled our young professional engagement strategy around their preferred methods and their relevant subjects. They wanted to do ad-hoc work over a defined period of time and they were interested in certain policy and development areas like housing and the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Most importantly, they wanted actionable results, not just reports.
This past year their housing work resulted in a bill at the state legislature that provided first time homebuyer down payment assistance—and it passed! Their bill, their victory. I’ll bet they’ll be chamber members forever! Also, their ecosystem development ideas led to an expansion of our Launch VT business pitch competition, including $75,000 in support for winners. In their eyes, we have gone from “stale, male and pale” to 21st century relevance.
“Chamber staff professionals spend an inordinate amount of time dealing, one at a time, with the challenges and problems of individual companies,” according to the “Resource Alignment” chapter. How much time do you spend addressing member issues one-on-one?
We spend a fair amount of time supporting individual investor companies. Many of our larger investors have their own lobbyists and established channels in local and state government, but others turn to us for government relations help. Often we’re asked for help making introductions into another investor company. Our mission statement is to make sure this region competes for jobs, capital and talent. For us to be successful in our mission, individual companies have to be successful. That’s how we justify the time spent serving individual companies.
We strive very hard not to get into one-off member service. Years back we offered that level of service across a couple of platforms (design, marketing, local political intervention) and found that we could not develop the staff capacity to serve the level of demand. While folks wanted the service, they were not interested in paying beyond dues for it. Today, we offer “concierge level” services to our 15 premium partner companies, but not to the entire membership. If a member comes to us with a marketing issue we refer them to a member business that can help. If they approach us with a political issue, we assess its applicability across the membership. If the issue has broad impact, we will engage on the local, state or federal level. If it is a single business or personal issue we might do some basic intervention for the member or explain the process they should use to resolve it themselves.
Investor vs. Member
The “Resource Alignment” chapter says that chambers must tie fundraising to their missions but chamber missions are broad and member motivations vary. How do you track the motivations of your members?
We look at all of our member companies as investors. We are the region’s economic development leader and the chamber of commerce for the city of Hartford. Even our smaller, local businesses at our entry level rate—we call them Hartford Investors—look to us to make things better in the city. That’s often public policy work on tax rates, city services and the like. Whether they call themselves an investor or a member, I want folks to see us as an entity trying to drive the overall economy.
If there is a way to monetize assistance, we are all in! For the past two years we received money to act as health care navigators for small businesses. We were just funded this year by the state to stand up a Canadian-Quebec province business-to-business initiative that will involve assisting businesses with accessing Canadian markets.
Simply put, the days of significant revenue over expenses have passed and we have to direct resources first to the tasks for which the members pay and second to entrepreneurial endeavors that might make us money.
Download this article: Horizon Perspectives (2)