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More than Dues Alone
Increased revenue from members

By Chris Mead

In 1967, the satirical movie The Graduate appeared to an appreciative audience of disaffected young people. A middle-aged businessman buttonholes the young graduate (played by Dustin Hoffman) with one word: “Plastics.” That, says the older man, is the future.

Twenty or 30 years ago, an older chamber executive might have grabbed the lapel of a younger counterpart and said, “Sponsorships.” For even as fair-share membership dues have grown at a snail’s pace or even declined in some cases, sponsorships have increased. Large companies, or companies ambitious for greater exposure, have been willing to pay extra for extra attention.

A hugely important and related phenomenon also will be covered in this article: enhanced dues. That comprises not only tiered dues (a model that allows chamber members to select how much they pay in dues according to the benefits they want) but the closely connected concept of chamber councils and trustees. We’ll cover, too, total resource campaigns – a sort of volunteer-powered sponsorship vacuuming machine that brings in tens of millions of dollars, collectively, each year for a few hundred chambers.

The Appeal

Anyone who watches the Super Bowl, the Oscars, or a NASCAR race can get an idea of the great value companies garner from being associated with a major event. Some of the glamor of the participants rubs off – or is perceived to rub off – on the sponsoring firms. Hence the vast sums that are paid for advertisements and the ability to say that a certain drink is the “official beverage of the XYZ Championships.”

There has been something of an arms race among companies to sponsor local events. Chambers have been among the leading “arms merchants,” selling exposure to local banks, hospitals, and others. And chamber executives frequently report significant year-to-year increases in their sponsorship income. They have benefited from being comprised of the groups with the greatest ability to sponsor things: the leading employers in town.

Increased Competition

But things are changing. Paul Timpanelli, outgoing head of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, says that while sponsorship has been the bright spot in his chamber’s revenue over the past 15 years, there could be choppy waters ahead. Why? Other nonprofits – of which there are many in Timpanelli’s community – are learning the sponsorship game.

Nicki Anderson, president and CEO of the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce in Illinois, agrees. Her chamber used to run the only local golf tournament. Now there are 26, just about all of which are fundraisers for other nonprofits. The same thing is happening downstate. “Everybody’s going to the same well,” says Laura Weis, president and CEO of the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce.

Katie Worthington, head of the chamber in Winter Haven, Fla., says it’s tough to compete for sponsorships against organizations touting “health and puppies.” The important thing, she believes, is to focus on what chambers do best: serving the business community. This is the chamber’s competitive advantage. This is also the conclusion of ACCE’s Horizon Initiative work, which reports chamber fundraising is likely to be most successful when it focuses on mission.

Consumer events with masses of people don’t necessarily mean big money for chambers. Sometimes they are more trouble than they’re worth. Jason Hutcheson, president and CEO of the Greater Burlington Partnership (Iowa) says, only half kidding, that it can be easier to raise $50,000 for economic development than $400 for a bike-race sponsorship.

There’s also competition from the web. Companies are less willing than in the past to put up money for a sponsorship just because they’re asked. If a bank official knows that she will get approximately 100 customer leads from an ad on Google or Facebook, what is the incentive to divert those funds to a chamber event in which the return is far more difficult to quantify? Yet for all the competition and problems with chamber sponsorship, it’s likely to remain a significant budget driver for the foreseeable future. A chamber can customize an offering to local businesses that few if any multinational firms can match. Simply by talking to local business people, chamber executives can determine what offerings will work best and can create those offerings. And some things are clearly quantifiable: for example, the number of people at a sponsored event, business found through the chamber’s website, or connections made at chamber gatherings.

The term “sponsorship” may not be the best for chambers to use, according to Jason E. Ebey, president and CEO of YGM Total Resource Campaigns. The term is better suited for consumer and charity events and doesn’t necessarily imply the investor is getting much of a return on investment. Ebey recommends alternative wording such as “marketing and advertising opportunities.”

Growth Driver

Sponsorship is one of the key elements of chamber non-dues revenue. And the long-term trends in non-dues revenue are unmistakable. ACCE found evidence via a master’s thesis study by Charles Van Rysselberge, CCE, in 1969. The chambers he studied, mostly in large cities, were matched to their counterparts whose financial results ACCE had available in 2006. We found that non-dues revenue exploded, after adjusting for inflation, by 262 percent over the 37-year period. Membership dues, by contrast, grew by only 35 percent – actually a lower rate than population growth in the average city studied. The typical chamber went from having non-dues revenue that was 32 percent of its total funding in 1969 to 61 percent in 2006. Dues, conversely, fell from 68 percent of total revenue in 1969 to 39 percent in 2006. (Source: “Big Growth Comes from Non-Dues Revenue,” Chris Mead and Chaaron Pearson, Chamber Executive, Spring 2008.)

Sponsorship and related enhanced investment by mostly larger members has continued to be a shot in the arm for chambers. A telling example comes from the South Shore Chamber of Commerce in Rockland, Mass. From 2003 to 2015, regular membership revenue declined from $740,000 to $509,000. During the same period, “partnership” revenue – sponsorships and trustee contributions – rose from $107,000 to $420,000. That “above dues” money, clearly, made all the difference.

Similarly, the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce lost some members in recent years – but sponsorship jumped from $125,000 in 2007 to $450,000 in 2015, according to the chamber’s president and CEO, Molly Grover, CCE. Meanwhile, Jim Fram, CCE, president and CEO of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber in Arkansas, says that his membership is static or slightly growing, while sponsorship is increasing rapidly. Such tales are common, suggesting that the long-term non-dues/sponsorship expansion trend from 1969 to 2006 is continuing, even though there is increased competition for sponsorship and marketing dollars.

It's all about access!

Patrick McGaughey, then the president of the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce in Idaho, was studying at U.S. Chamber Institute at Notre Dame. He was troubled because one of his board members had not been truthful about how many people were employed by this board member's company. McGaughey’s board member had just paid the chamber $200, when the correct amount with the actual number of employees – 30 – would have been $802. This board member's business was being impacted by the shift to electronic communications and the person was desperate to cut expenses, even if it meant not telling the truth.

What was McGaughey to do? None of the options seemed fair. He could have simply revoked the company’s membership and returned the $200, but that was hardly a smart political move for McGaughey, who had just arrived in town. Alternatively, he could take the money and hide the unfairness from a similar-sized competitor who was paying full freight for 31 employees. His next step was to ask for advice at Institute.

Flummoxed by not finding any answers from colleagues or faculty at Institute, he attended a scheduled elective class on Microsoft Access. As the MS Access program loaded and scrolled up on the computer, it suddenly came to him: “Access! Let's give our members options and let them choose their ‘access’ to the organization.” He went back to his office in Coeur d'Alene with a pilot membership program titled "Membership Access" and recommended offering different levels of dues, initially ranging from $160 to $3,000, and each with its own set of benefits. Businesses would only pay for the benefits they wished to receive.

It was 1994 and this was the beginning of tiered dues for chambers of commerce. Olympic-style tiers for sponsorships (gold, silver, bronze, etc.) were common practice, but the concept had not been widely applied to membership dues. McGaughey taught other chambers, in Oregon, Washington, and beyond, about what he had done, once it became clear that tiered dues not only satisfied members but also raised additional revenue. He found it gave sales directors and volunteers options for closing more sales beyond “yes” or “no” and the benefits they purchased within the different levels were offered on a "use it or lose it" basis. His net income for the following year increased $42,000, and as McGaughey says, the rest is history.

Tiered dues has been the most talked-about chamber membership trend over the past 10 or 15 years. The idea is to go beyond the old “fair-share” membership model – based primarily on how many employees a company has – and instead allow firms to buy whatever level of membership they want. In many cases, tiers include built-in sponsorship opportunities. In theory, companies will invest at the level most appropriate for them, maximizing chamber revenue and minimizing turnover.

Talking about the fair-share model, consultant Kyle Sexton says, “If you use a fair-share model now, you are punishing your members for growing, and rewarding them for lying to you. Neither is a good premise for a long-lasting relationship.” (See page 10 of ACCE’s 2013 white paper report, An Examination of Revenue Models.)

Yet thousands of chambers have stayed with the old model. The smaller the chamber, the greater the chance it will keep the fair-share system.

Access! Let's give our members options and let them choose their ‘access’ to the organization.

Patrick McGaughey
Graphic 1

A breakdown of chambers of various sizes using the traditional fair-shavel model, according to the 2015 ACCE Dynamic Chamber Benchmarking report.


Why haven’t more chambers shifted to the tiered-dues model? There are several possible reasons:

  1. The perceived complexity of keeping track of the benefits and deliverables for each of several tiers of members. This can be especially taxing for smaller chambers, where a staff of five or fewer people have difficult and varied tasks already.
  2. Tier fear: the concern that members paying the largest amounts now will drop to minimum dues under the new model.
  3. Lack of clarity on whether the chamber will gain revenue. ACCE statistics show that many chambers that have implemented tiered dues cannot tell if they’ve made money or not. (On the other hand, of those that know, more chambers claim increased revenue than chambers who say their revenue has dropped.)
  4. Inertia. Chambers are not known for rushing to change. There’s little that’s more basic to the nature of the chamber than how it collects dues, and that makes dues reform something that chamber executives generally are unwilling to embark on unless the need is clear and the chance of success is high. Consultant Chuck Ewart, CCE, says that business people are fairly quick to accept tiered dues; it’s the chamber staff, including the CEO, that’s most reluctant to make the shift.
  5. Partial solutions. It’s not hard to design a special class or two of members (a council or board of trustees, for example) and leave it at that. This can cream off some of the top revenue benefits of tiered dues without the bureaucratic difficulty of devising special spots for everybody. Another partial or hybrid fix is to put a floor on how far a big company can drop in its dues payments. Thus the factory with 1,000 employees can’t get away with paying $250 minimum dues.
  6. Wariness of turning community spirit into a transactional relationship. Top investors often pay more to the chamber to improve the community, not to get recognition or marketing advantage. For these companies and their executives, the ones most important to the financial health of the chamber, a list of benefits to their firm means much less than a description of benefits to the community. They need to be approached in a special way, and for many of them, the tier they’re in is irrelevant, provided the chamber does its job on advocacy and community advancement.
 

Tiered Dues: An Enticing Option

Yet even when all these factors are put into the equation, tiered dues remains an enticing option, and anecdotal evidence suggests that chambers continue to switch from fair-share to tiered dues, or at least to a hybrid model. Tiered dues are a powerful tool (although not the only one) for making it more appealing to large and medium-sized businesses to pay more money. Given the opportunity to pay more for a better product (or tier), many will pay more.

Volunteers at the Springdale, Ark., Chamber of Commerce were getting tired of participating in annual total resource campaigns for memberships and sponsorships. The longtime CEO of the organization, Perry Webb, CCE, realized he needed to do something new. And so he took the plunge and adopted a tiered dues system. Now, instead of volunteers selling specific items to members, members themselves can pick how much they want to spend, aided in many cases by salespeople at the chamber. Webb was carefully designed the system to prevent or discourage big members from dropping down too far in what they were paying, now that the fair-share dues model was on the way out.

The results have been staggering. In 2014, the first year of tiered dues, the chamber pulled in $278,000 in new money. Since then, the revenue from tiered dues has continued to grow, with a projected 11 percent increase in 2016.

Lisa Krueger, president and CEO of the Lake Havasu, Ariz., Chamber of Commerce, also praises tiered dues. She’s found that when one company is a member of the Chairman’s Circle (her chamber’s top tier), others don’t want to be left out. If one firm sees its rival at the top tier, the former firm often will pay up to equalize the exposure and benefits.

There are many other chamber executives who swear by tiered dues. And they can be found all over the country. Tiered dues does not require volunteers – indeed, it’s usually implemented by chamber professionals – and therefore the system can work in any part of the United States or Canada. Total resource campaigns, by contrast, need volunteers, and the chamber fundraising volunteers are more likely to be found mostly in certain geographic areas. (We go into more detail in the total resource campaign section.) Tiered dues systems are not a panacea. One of the chamber executives interviewed for this report mentioned that she had a tiered dues system. Yet the chamber was a good deal below average in its ability to attract revenue from its larger members. In this case, the system did not do what it was supposed to do. A tiered dues system without an aggressive program to ask big members, point blank, if they wish to come in at higher tiers, will be nothing but a piece of web parchment. To put it another way, tiered dues is a recipe; someone still has to cook the dish. Otherwise the chamber will go hungry.

So what’s the matter with Kansas? Nothing really, but in this state, two chambers have encountered issues with tiered dues. The chamber in Lawrence dropped tiered dues and went back to fair share, in part perhaps, because it had too many tiers (a total of 10, which is about five too many). The chamber in Overland Park has not adopted regular tiered dues because CEO Tracey Osborne, CCE, considers the idea to be contrary to the chamber’s basic undertaking. Osborne wants “mission-based” members, not members whose primary goal is to find the best marketing bang for their buck. She does, however, offer a tiered system of marketing and engagement opportunities.

There are different points of view on tiered dues just as there are many philosophies on other types of chamber fundraising efforts. Yet there’s no doubt that tiered dues is a critical part of the chamber landscape today. The system also has changed how many chamber executives think, aided by consultants such as Cathi Hight, Kyle Sexton, Pat McGaughey, and Chuck Ewart. It’s no longer about the size of a given company. It’s about chambers rewarding members, big and small, with something of value, and not hiding that value’s light under a bushel.

Councils and Trustees

Groups of the heavy hitters at chambers are a kind of fundraising that has increased over recent decades. They come in different shapes and forms, with common traits being that they are designated as groups and also significantly invest in the chamber, often above fair-share dues (if the chamber operates by the standard system).

It’s human nature for some to want to be on the “A Team.” People in these groups usually get perks and privileges. The emergence of this type of program is analogous to market segmentation seen in the first-class seats in airplanes, “gold status” with car rentals companies or hotels, and the like. However, not everybody cares about every privilege. Many of the biggest companies, in particular, usually don’t join chamber high-investor groups for the accolades or ego-oriented perks but instead to be able to be in a room with their peers, meet the mayor or governor, and/or simply support the chamber and the community.

What forms do these groups of big investors take? The most common is the elite group – companies that pay a lot to the chamber, period (whether it’s for benefits or because they choose to provide a higher level of support). Then there’s the specific group – councils or task forces that pool their resources through the chamber to address a specific industry or undertaking. Either way, it’s done with the group as a key part of the process.

Elite Groups

There are many different names for the groups of investors that pay lots of money to support the chamber: councils, trustees, platinum or gold members, or, arguably, even board members in the case of chambers that require a certain level of investment to be part of the organization's governing body. The names vary among chambers, but the principles are similar: financial support by investors in return for activities and identity as a special group.

These forms of membership, many with elements of sponsorship built in (a table at the annual dinner, logo at the economic outlook breakfast, etc.), can be amazing sources of revenue. They do not of necessity, as mentioned above, require an entire conversion to a tiered dues model of membership. (Tiered dues, however, usually includes such groups as one or two of the top tiers.) These high-paying groups do require attention to the needs and wants of the large investors and a willingness to approach and stay in touch with those investors.

Florida chambers are unusually experienced in the trustee member concept. Arguably the granddaddy of ‘em all is the Boca Chamber, with 210 trustees out of 1,500 total members. President and CEO Troy McLellan, CCE, says the trustees pay $600,000 in total, or about 40 percent of the entire budget (dues and non-dues) of the chamber. And their renewal rate is sky-high. Key benefits include meetings with leading political figures.

The New Orleans Chamber of Commerce has more recently joined the trustee game but with equal dedication and remarkable results. Its Chairman’s Council, launched in 2010, requires an annual $15,000 in cash or in-kind contributions annually. The chamber had five of these members in 2010, 11 the following year, 25 in 2012, 32 in 2013-14, and 38 in 2016. Total cash revenue is nearly $400,000, or almost half the chamber’s budget, according to Ben Johnson, the New Orleans Chamber’s president and CEO.

And the beat goes on at hundreds of other chambers. The Northern Kentucky Chamber has an Investors Circle with annual investment at $25,000 and a Board of Advisors level at $2,650. Cindy Frey of the chamber in Columbus, Indiana (where Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken once worked), has instituted a top tier of high-level members, without implementing a full tiered dues system, and reports the results are not chicken feed: $56,000 in revenue from eight companies, representing more than 10 percent of the chamber’s budget.

What about chambers in small communities where there aren’t many companies with the ability or willingness to pay more than their accustomed share? It may be that councils or trustee groups won’t work there. A wise chamber executive, however, would be more successful having one-on-one conversations with a few leaders in town to see if they have a different opinion. It’s best not to assume people won’t pay more for a different and more tailored service. They might.

And as for the leading investors in some of the biggest chambers, there may even be a trend that’s beyond tiers, according to Cathi Hight, senior vice president of the Greater Austin Chamber and president of Hight Performance, Inc. She’s building “personal engagement plans” for every member that invests more than $2,500 annually at her chamber. The idea is to build meaningful interactions for the executives, not vague sponsorships with no clear link to value of membership. It’s not so much about logos on poster board as it is helping companies and individuals reach objectives.

Special Focus or Industry Groups

Chamber investor groups with specific ends in mind are easy to spot. They make their aims clear, such as better workforce development or action on a highway project. For these investors, identity as a member of the group, and even support of the chamber, may take a back seat to getting important tasks accomplished. But as the change agent, the chamber likely will benefit financially while serving key members’ needs.

Kathy Tilque, CCE, president and CEO of the chamber in Gilbert, Ariz., assembled a group of companies for the “Partners in Progress” program which is designed to promote workforce development. The group contributed $15,000 to the chamber in 2014, $45,000 in 2015, and an anticipated $60,000 in 2016.

Forming a special group is possible even when the industry already has its own association. In Elkhart, Ind., ground zero for the recreational vehicle industry, there was already an RV association. But the president and CEO of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce, Kyle Hannon, put together an OSHA Council that caters to manufacturers anxious to follow federal safety regulations. The RV makers participate and pay a premium to do so.

Todd Tranum, president of the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce in New York, said workforce development is critical in his labor-short, manufacturing-heavy area. He’s found his manufacturers, including such companies as Cummins, Dresser, Cutco Knives, and Nestle Purina, renew at close to a 100 percent rate. These companies, along with foundations, pay the chamber extra to pursue strategies that address critical workforce needs. Tranum says that many companies have more interest in funding workforce development than in paying dues. He adds, “You hit a nerve and you get the right product, the money will come.”

Total Resource Campaigns

Does every chamber fundraising concept start in Atlanta? No, but it sometimes feels that way. There were modern capital campaigns, begun at the Atlanta Chamber in 1926, and then a streamlined version for multiple communities, initiated by Howard Benson (former membership director for the chamber) in 1977. Then there were total resource campaigns. These are generally credited to the creative mind of Jerry Bartels, CCE, who unleashed the first such campaign in the 1980s when he headed the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

A standard total resource campaign typically has the following characteristics:

  1. Directed by chamber staff but conducted by volunte
  2. Handled annually
  3. Rewards the best volunteers, occasionally with cash, but more often a free trip to a nice destination
  4. Collects both memberships and sponsorships, although sponsorships and advertising are the main focus and by far the main revenue generator
  5. Has a menu of options, including sponsorship opportunities for the whole year ahead, that prospects can choose from and in which volunteers have some basic instruction
  6. Has a kick-off date and end date, usually with a total duration of six to eight weeks
  7. Has a publicly stated goal for total money raised
  8. Includes some software by which the chamber can keep score and make sure no single item is double- or triple-sold.

Most chambers agree these campaigns are a lot of work. Some, such as the chamber in Charleston, S.C., have abandoned total resource campaigns for that reason and because the many details can be confusing for volunteers and prospects alike, obscuring the chamber’s mission. But TRCs have an enduring appeal. They can generate significant amounts of money. They also energize volunteers, reminding them of what the chamber does and providing trips that build memories and cohesion.

Just how big is the current market for these campaigns? No one has done a study and it’s difficult to pin down numbers because many chambers do these campaigns independently of YGM or other companies. Although total resource campaigns have a certain complexity, it’s not hard to master them after running a couple, particularly since most chambers continue to use the software that organizes the process. The fact that so many chambers have learned how to do these campaigns by themselves explains why there’s only one full-fledged company – YGM – that now operates full-time in the space, with no other major line of business. (While YGM charges a consulting fee for year one, in subsequent years it charges only for software rental, at a much smaller rate.)

Even though estimating the market size is tricky, Jason E. Ebey of YGM and this author came up independently with exactly the same estimate: $50 million per year. It is made up of $11 million in TRC revenues of current full-time and previous YGM clients (who continue to use the software) plus such massive independent programs as Charlotte’s ($5.5 million), Tulsa’s ($3.6 million), and many more smaller programs.

By the Numbers: TRC's

Charlotte, N.C.: $5.5 million
Tulsa, Okla.: $3.6 million
Oklahoma City, Okla.: $2.8 million
Waco, Texas: $1.3 million
Montgomery, Ala.: $1 million
Cobb County, Ga.: $900,000
Columbus, Ga.: $800,000
Fort Collins, Colo.: $721,000 out of a $1.39 million budget
Tallahassee, Fla.: $515,000
Macon, Ga.: $345,000
Bossier City, La.: $300,000
Iowa City, Ia.: $220,000 out of a $760,000 budget
Belleville, Ill.: $180,000 out of a $600,000 budget
Opelika, Ala.: $150,000 out of a $430,000 budget

Examples of a few total resource campaigns, some YGM clients and some not.

It’s clear that these and other TRC programs are significant to the chambers using them. Of course, not all the money stays in the chambers’ bank accounts. A guideline that YGM advises is that up to 10–12 percent of the money can and should be used to motivate volunteers with cash and trip incentives. The trips have to be relatively inexpensive or they’ll gobble up more than the allocated amount. That’s why most chambers in the Southeast take trips to Mexico or Caribbean cruises, while chambers in Iowa often go to Las Vegas or New Orleans, according to Ebey.

Not only trips and cash motivate volunteers. There’s also the chance to interact with business prospects. Many people are “voluntold” by their bosses to be active in the TRC program in order to have an excuse to meet a potential client.

The selling motivation is significant. A study was done a few years ago of a group of the high-performing TRC volunteers, who raised $40,000 or more per year each, and the item they pointed to most was business development. Working to bring in money for the chamber allowed them to get into companies whose doors might otherwise have been closed to them for their own products and services.

In addition to the roughly 10–12 percent cost of sales, there’s also a larger percentage of the incoming funds that goes to the consultant handling the project.

Scanning total resource campaigns across the United States provides interesting insights on the trends in sponsorships. Joyce Powell-Johnson, the founder of YGM who recently retired from the company, says she has noticed a movement toward small and medium-sized sponsors. There is less reliance on the big investors, especially the big national or multinational banks (which, thanks to deregulation, have grown bigger than ever and have weaker local roots). Revenue is still strong with the movement to more locally-based investment. “In many ways it’s a healthy shift,” she said. Chambers have an extra incentive to make their programs more attractive to the rank and file of the organization.

Some programs deviate from the usual sponsorship-centric model. The Cobb Chamber in Marietta, Ga. generates a substantial $900,000 annually on a TRC conducted in-house that sells just memberships and advertising. That revenue is about 18 percent of the chamber’s budget. The bad rap on volunteer-based membership drives (which are a component of the typical TRC, even though sponsorships dominate from a dollar standpoint) is that membership renewal rates are often low. If your friend Jane asks you to join and you do it for her, and not so much for the merits of the chamber, will you renew next year at the request of a stranger from the chamber?

David May, CCE, and his colleagues at the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce, which implemented one of the first TRCs in Colorado, found a way around the problem. In a previous, standalone membership drive, his chamber achieved a 20 to 30 percent retention rate. Now, via the TRC, Fort Collins is retaining 50 to 60 percent of members it gains through the campaign. What’s the secret? Tying volunteers’ rewards to renewals. They get credit for renewing their previous sales.

May found another benefit of the TRC: it is direct market feedback. When volunteers asked prospects for sponsorships or to support specific initiatives, it became clearer what the chamber ought to be doing. The events that didn’t get sponsorship could in many cases be retired or replaced with programming that’s more appealing to sponsors.

Volun-tears

Christine Ross, CCE, then the president and CEO of the Bonita Springs Area Chamber of Commerce, was about to kick off her chamber’s total resource campaign. When she announced it to her board, the response was total silence. She believed it would fail without their enthusiasm and immediately canceled the plan. After all, it wasn’t supposed to be her campaign, it was supposed to be theirs.

This type of scenario has been repeated in many places. In fact, relatively few of the team captains in TRCs are from their chamber’s board. Successful TRCs involve a volunteer group that’s comprised of about 50 percent newcomers to serious chamber engagement. Still, a board’s apathy can be a downer.

Total resource campaigns aren’t for every chamber and without a strong base of committed fundraisers, the campaign won’t gain traction. Volunteers must want to roll up their sleeves. A chamber may have a perfectly fine set of members but if they don’t want to do the fundraising job, the job will be a flop.

We have already seen how the members of the Springdale Chamber got tired of the TRC work. Similar fatigue has set in elsewhere. Sometimes, people stop wanting to participate in sales contests they perceive as hokey (although plenty of TRC pushes are strictly button-down; it depends on the chamber).

Then there is the geographic mystery. Why are TRCs so rare, if not nonexistent, in California, and nearly just as rare in New England? Are TRCs a red-state thing?

There’s probably a book to be written here, but in the interest of sanity, we’ll stick with a few paragraphs of mere speculation. TRCs can be found mostly in the South, Midwest, Great Plains, and, more recently, Rocky Mountain states. It may be that in these places, with a political color usually more red than blue, people are more likely to look to business, rather than government, for community advancement. There are plenty of fundraising volunteers in blue states, but most of them are not raising funds for chambers but instead for charities and other causes. Business people in the red states – not all of them, but many – are more willing than blue-state executives to take up the cudgels and personally knock on doors to fundraise for the chamber.

That is one possible explanation. It does not mean however, that blue-state chamber members are all for government as the solution to local problems. It’s that in places where government is perceived as making most of the key decisions, business people may not consider it urgent to spend a lot of their job or personal time tilting against the windmill.

There could be another factor at work, too. Leaning on professionals to take charge (including the critical role of fundraising), and not depending on board members to make decisions, is a relatively recent phenomenon in chambers and other associations. The bigger the chamber, the bigger the companies on the board. And the bigger the community, the more likely board members are to say, “You do it, Fred.” (ACCE CEO Mick Fleming pointed to the rising professionalism of chambers in his article, “Heresies Worth Discussing: Where Did the Volunteers Go?” published in the Winter 2008 Chamber Executive.)

Harried executives may chip in lots of money to the chamber, and perhaps make a critical connection for the chamber from time to time, but they don’t want to do what they perceive as the chamber staff’s work. In any case, the combination of the busy urban executive, the rise of the professional class (and the expectation that the chamber should take charge of more duties from the volunteers), and the increasing reach of government, makes it harder to sell chamber fundraising to volunteers. And those trends, at least up to now, have been most pronounced in the heavily urbanized Northeast and West Coast. But it’s worth noting that in Atlanta, the birthplace of the TRC, the metro chamber has abandoned that volunteer-based form of fundraising, while Charleston, S.C., Springdale, Ark., and Wichita, Kan. have done the same. So the North-South or blue-state/red-state divide on TRCs and similar fundraising may be gradually blurring.

TRCs are such an effective engine of fundraising, however, that they should not be underestimated just because they are still concentrated in a few – very large – parts of the country. Circumstantial evidence suggests that more TRCs are being started than being abandoned. The need for more funds is a powerful incentive to adapt to changing times and circumstances, which we can see in even the smallest communities. It used to be that TRC consultants shied away from small towns because the relatively small revenues obtainable there. But now YGM’s Ebey – whose first job was in a chamber of 33 members – has devised a model that will work for chambers small and large. He handles the interactions (unless the chamber chooses to pay for a visit)… on Skype.

You hit a nerve and you get the right product, the money will come

Todd Tranum

Conclusion

Men and women do not live on bread alone, and chambers don’t live just on basic dues. It can be a hand-to-mouth life to run a chamber without some lucrative sponsorships to stock the cupboard. The gradual shrinkage of regular dues as a percentage of chamber revenues has, fortunately, been more than compensated for by a near-explosion in revenue from sponsorships and related funding, mostly from large and medium-sized chamber members. Tiered dues, councils and boards of trustees, and total resource campaigns are among the interrelated ways that chambers have captured the new funds. This process is sure to continue, as is the increasing focus on tying funding to what larger members generally care most about: the chamber’s mission. If chamber executives wish to provide extra value to their members and to the community, and by all indications they do, they will need to ask for and obtain payment for that value. That payment, whether it’s called sponsorship or platinum membership or admission onto a board of trustees, will be essential to chambers – and their missions – in the years ahead.

 

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Accrisoft is an Official Corporate Sponsor of ACCE American Express is an Official Corporate Sponsor of ACCE Aventura World by Central Holidays West is an Official Corporate Sponsor of ACCE, the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives Benfits Trust is an Official Corporate Sponsor of ACCE Citslinc is an Official Corporate Sponsor of ACCE Insperity is an Official Corporate Sponsor of ACCE Market Street Services is an Official Corporate Sponsor of ACCE, the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives United Networks of America is an Official Corporate Sponsor of ACCE The U.S. Chamber is an Official Corporate Sponsor of ACCE
Sponsorship and advertising opportunities 2018 ACCE Annual Convention