So, I just returned from the ACCE (American Chamber of Commerce Executives) convention in Los Angeles.  Our President & CEO, Casey Steinbacher, was ending her year as chair of this national professional development organization for chamber executives.  There were many workshops on the latest developments around membership, economic development, and public policy.  A few heavy hitters, like Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Meghan McCain spoke to packed audiences during two of the many morning and evening events.  However, I was particularly struck by one of the panel discussions on the Future of the Chamber Business Model.

Moderated by Casey, three panelists were asked to address a driving question in the chamber world – is the traditional membership-based model sustainable?  A great question that has many chambers wondering what they need to do to stay relevant with their constituencies.  As many know the Durham Chamber made a 180 degree turnaround in our membership model in 2009.  At that time, we made a commitment to take a proactive approach toward fully engaging our members – which was a giant leap forward when you look at how chambers typically operate.  The number one reason members become disenchanted, is because they don’t manage to “plug-in” once they join.  To help them, our first step is to understand their business because we recognize that unless we know the business, we are in no position to serve them.

Since the second quarter of this year, we took our process one step further by asking a series of questions of all prospective members, in what we call a discovery meeting.  This not only helps us to determine if we’ll be able to meet the engagement objectives for that potential member, but also provides information we need to design what we call a MAP (Membership Action Plan).  This is created for most new members as a step-by-step plan for how to leverage their membership.  Any smart business knows that if you can’t make the case for ROI, it is not likely worth the expenditure.  As most small businesses do not have a way to measure this, we believe this tool serves double duty.  For many, they can return to the plan (at the end of their first year) and have something to measure against.  We’re clear that our approach may not be right for every chamber, let alone community; in fact, some might say we may be shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot.  I say, we’re taking the chance to better serve by helping to not only attract the right kinds of businesses for our existing members, but also truly sharing in the responsibility of engaging our members as much or as little as their particular business requires.

Regardless, it’s something to think about, and the Durham Chamber has made the commitment to stay relevant even if it means doing things beyond what is expected of this centuries old institution.  I am thrilled to be part of changing how business is done inside the chamber, as business outside the chamber seems to evolve almost daily.  Durham is a unique and progressive community in a lot of ways, and deserves a chamber that is equally unique and progressive.  Stay tuned on further posts about this particular topic.


++ Adrian Brown
Chamber Connection Broker, Durham Enthusiast, Downtown Resident