- A chamber of commerce is an organization of business owners and entrepreneurs who promote the interests of their local business community.
- Chambers of commerce provide access to valuable resources, discounts, and relationships that help businesses save money and market their products.
- Joining a chamber of commerce can boost sales and significantly improve a local business' visibility and credibility.
This guide explores the business value and ROI of joining a chamber of commerce. Small business owners and entrepreneurs often overlook chambers of commerce because they are unfamiliar with them. However, this guide provides a useful introduction to the benefits of joining a chapter, the fees and choices available to business owners, and how to become a chamber member.
What is a Chamber of Commerce?
Chamber of commerce is a broad term referring to a business network. This network is made of individuals who invest their time and money into the organization, generally with the goal of advancing their community's economic well-being. Often, a chamber of commerce is made up of local business owners and entrepreneurs in a designated geographical area who advocate for local business.
Customers respond 63% more favorably to businesses that are members of a local chamber of commerce.
Each chamber of commerce is run as an individual organization, known as a chapter. A chapter represents a local, regional, state, or national interest. A chapter also represents many different initiatives and viewpoints within a specific community — typically with a pro-business and pro-free-enterprise viewpoint. While many people might associate the chamber of commerce with the government, it is not a government entity. A chamber will often lobby the government (whether local, state, or national) to ensure the chapter's legislative agenda is represented. Chapters do not, however, receive any funding from the government.
The idea of a chamber of commerce has been around for hundreds of years. Today, you can find thousands of chapters across the country. For example, one of America's largest chapters, the United States Chamber of Commerce, was founded in 1912. There are over 4,000 chapters in the U.S. advocating for a variety of issues, including tax policies, legal reform, and economic reform. While the guiding principles for each chapter are different, many of their goals center around economic development, prosperity, and employer community.
Benefits of Joining a Chamber of Commerce
Joining a chamber of commerce provides businesses with access to resources, discounts, and relationships that enable them to save money, market their products, and streamline their processes. Both employees internal to individual chapters and members of chapters bring their own benefits to the total body. Whether your business is looking for B2B partners and sales, help with customer acquisition, or guidance on HR processes, a chamber of commerce can help.
- Networking Opportunities
Networking Opportunities for Business Growth
The opportunity to network among local business owners, operators, and industry movers is one of the most appealing aspects of joining a chapter. Examples of popular networking opportunities include:
Meet and greets, networking lunches, and mixers for company employees enable individuals to develop mutually beneficial marketing strategies and foster the discussion of business strategy. For instance, the Summit Chamber of Commerce chapter hosts a weekly coffee meet-up for local entrepreneurs, business owners, and freelancers.
Chambers of commerce offer a variety of partnership opportunities. Ambassador programs, for example, consist of chapter employees who work to help new members actively use the chapter's services. In turn, members learn to market their products collaboratively. A small-scale sports arena owner may, for instance, learn to work in conjunction with multiple food vendors to the mutual benefit of all parties involved. Likewise, trade shows advertised and supported through a chapter can benefit multiple members of the chapter, as the multiplication of vendors in one location attracts more customers.
When your business joins a chamber of commerce, the membership typically allows for a certain number of employees to also join. This enables individuals within your company access to the same people and resources that benefit you and your business.
- Streamlined Marketing
A membership to a chamber of commerce provides your business with opportunities for additional exposure.
Chambers of commerce offer business listing and banner advertising on their website, newsletters, social media pages, chapter newsletters, and even publications.
Some chapters offer sponsorship for events or fundraisers in which individual business or the chapter itself garner more interest. The Dallas Area Chamber of Commerce, for example, offers a great example of how businesses can use sponsorships as a marketing tool.
New Business Opportunities
Chambers offer access to member-to-member business referrals, insight into new businesses moving in the community, and networking among industry leaders for new businesses who need a boost.
Customers respond 63% more favorably to businesses that are members of a local chamber. By advertising themselves as a member of a chamber of commerce on their storefront or website, businesses add further credibility to their products and services. As such, customers are more likely to purchase from chapter members.
Being a member of a chapter gives you several opportunities to get involved in the community. Many chapters partner with local organizations to help bring awareness to a need. Companies who help their community typically find that their community has a favorable view of them and their products or services.
- Resources for Businesses
Resources for Businesses
Business owners and entrepreneurs wear many different hats. Being a member of the chamber gives them access to resources they might not otherwise have:
Access to the chamber's membership directory helps business owners locate other businesses that might work with them. Members can also get access to email lists to broaden their customer base, whether B2B or B2C.
Chambers make special member-to-member discounts available. These may include discounts for restaurants, tuition, insurance, bulk shipping, office supplies, electric or gas energy, accounting software, and industry literature.
For larger chambers, members often enjoy access to their facilities where they can hold events. For smaller or medium-sized companies, the use of facilities is paramount to community engagement.
Chambers also provide streamlined access to business loans. By fostering relationships with banks, chambers can make recommendations to businesses for banks and help banks trust a business' ability to pay off a loan.
- Services for Businesses
Services for Businesses
Chambers also offer many services that businesses rely on:
Chambers offer HR consulting regarding benefits, regulatory compliance, and training. These services bring the total experience of each company within the chapter into the consultation.
Today's businesses need to safeguard against both physical and cyber threats. As such, many chapters offer consultation regarding the safekeeping of individuals and their information.
Many chapters go beyond merely offering consultation. Some also offer outright payroll services that help both small and large companies track their finances.
Chambers also provide immediate access to job listings and employee referrals, which proves useful to businesses who need to hire seasonal workers.
Advocacy and Representation
Chambers often recommend PAC (political action committees) or political candidates that represent the pro-business stance of the chamber's chapter. Chapters can even choose to donate to the PACs or candidates on the chamber's behalf.
- Education and Training
Education and Training
Many chapters feature business seminars and workshops to help owners sharpen their business skills. Examples of education and training takes on many forms:
Lunch and Learns
These gatherings provide owners and employees with important, up-to-date, and credible information from subject matter experts.
Business Seminars and Workshops
Meetings on current business topics offer an in depth analysis of both local and national business trends that help chamber members make strategic choices regarding their business' future.
Some chambers offer insight into legislative or community issues impacting businesses at the local, state, and national level.
Chamber of Commerce Structure and Organization
Each chapter of a chamber is governed by a board of directors who advise the chapter on strategies and policies determined by the chapter's mission. The board manages day-to-day affairs and updates the chapter policies. Board members, also referred to as an executive council, are elected within each chapter. Most chapters have an acting president and CEO, for example. Members of the board are elected based on their leadership experience, business background, and ability to execute chapter goals.
In addition to a governing board of directors, a chapter will have at least one employee. Some chapters may have more than one employee and be structured like a business. Employees work to market the chapter, in overseeing memberships, and in tracking the chapter's finances.
In addition to the employees, a chapter has committees to focus on executing specific goals based on the chapter's mission — such as education, environment, or healthcare. Members of the chapter can volunteer for these committees to get more involved.
How a Chamber of Commerce Functions
A chamber of commerce chapter is made up of a dues-based membership. Each chapter offers different levels of membership, along with unique volunteer opportunities and a dues structure.
80% of respondents in a Shapiro Group survey were more likely to purchase goods or services in the future from companies belonging to a chamber of commerce.
Each chapter is designated as a 501(c)(6) corporation under the federal tax law. This means a chapter is a nonprofit entity with the authority to represent its membership in matters of policy and debate (unlike charitable organizations that do not act on behalf of members).
Dues are required by each member to contribute to the overall operating costs. In addition to dues, a chamber can raise money to cover additional operating costs by holding fundraising activities and charging fees to chamber events. These costs help the chapter stay operational since multiple businesses rely on their local chamber for networking and resources.
Different Types of Chambers of Commerce
A chapter can be found at the local, state, city, regional, or national level. Some chapters are even associated with specific neighborhoods within a community. Still others are formed to represent a group of specific business interests. Examples of this include female business owners chapters or the National Black Chamber of Commerce.
Since each chapter has its own mission focused on economic vitality throughout a designated area, each can support different industries or initiatives. For example, some focus on economic development while others connect a specific community to local businesses. While each chamber acts independently, multiple chambers can join together to form a larger, collective group serving a similar interest. For instance, several county chapters can join together to form a larger regional chapter to pool together resources.
The Local Impact of a Chamber of Commerce
Exact numbers on the impact a chamber has on the local economy are difficult to measure. However, a study conducted by the Shapiro Group out of Atlanta, GA, shows how a chamber membership directly impacts sales within the community, thus the local economy. For instance, people are 36% more likely to purchase insurance from a member of the chamber. Likewise, a shopper is 44% more likely to purchase from an automobile dealership that is a member of the chamber, according to the Shapiro Group study.
A study conducted by the Shapiro Group found that consumers were 49% more likely to think favorably of a business if they are a member of a chamber of commerce.
A local chapter of a chamber of commerce can impact a community through celebrations, gatherings, or event sponsorships. Additionally, a chapter can advocate on many local issues — from education to criminal justice — to impact communities. Many chapters work with other groups involved in the community, such as tourism groups and economic development teams, to bolster their initiatives. For instance, a chapter focusing on economic development could be solely responsible for bringing a new business to a community.
Impact on Small Business Owners and Entrepreneurs
Many consider small businesses the heart of the chamber of commerce — with good reason. Small businesses can potentially see a boost to their own bottom line by aligning with a chapter. The Shapiro Group also found that consumers were 49% more likely to think favorably of a business if they are a member of the chamber of commerce. Additionally, 80% of the respondents in the survey were more likely to purchase goods or services from the company in the future.
Sam James, Owner and Funeral Director for James Funeral Services in Huntersville, NC offered a local business owner's perspective on how being a member of a local chamber can benefit business. He said, "Our membership with the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce has been invaluable. The Chamber is a conduit that connects us not only to business leaders in our community, but to the general public. We enjoy numerous networking events each month as well as the educational programming."
Joining a Chamber of Commerce
Joining a chapter is a straightforward process, starting with an application and dues payment. The real work is choosing which chapter is best suited to your needs and aligns with the economic policies you support.
Choosing Which Chamber to Join
Not every chamber of commerce chapter will fit your needs, and one might be a better fit than others. You can start by attending events open to nonmembers or by contacting current members. Each chapter will likely have a website with contact information and other information. You can use the following checklist to help you ask questions to determine which chapter is best for you:
One last critical aspect of choosing the right chapter is to look at the board of directors, or executive council. Get to know the members of a board if possible, or at least research their backgrounds. Each member has a unique contribution. Understanding the board is another way of understanding the chapter itself.
Advocating for Your Business Within a Chamber of Commerce
No one understands your business better than you do, and a chamber of commerce is a great resource for your business' success. For those unsure of where to start, the best place to determine how you might get involved is to attend a few chapter meetings. From there, you can ask other members (especially ones in the same industry as you) how they are involved and where the chamber needs the most help. As with many associations, you can start small and increase your contributions over time.
You can also take your membership a step further by getting involved in committee or subcommittee work. This may allow your business to sponsor activities with the chamber, especially ones which align to your business category. You can also look for speaking and writing opportunities within meetings and events, which further promotes your business and industry knowledge.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is there health insurance coverage through the chamber of commerce?
- Depending on the chapter, there may be opportunities to obtain health care coverage through the association. This would be information you need to confirm with the individual chapter. There are instances where local chapters partner with other organizations to spearhead health coverage for small businesses in certain areas. A great example of this initiative can be found with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.
- Why do some chambers have 501(c)(3) foundations, and what are they?
- Some chambers establish their own charitable/educational foundation that falls under the 501(c)(3) federal tax law. These foundations are established to support causes aligned to the chamber's agenda.
- Would joining multiple chambers that represent my business make sense?
- It is possible to join more than one chamber, and each membership should be based on your business goals.
- Do chambers of commerce have job boards for hiring local talent?
- Many chambers of commerce feature local or regional job opportunities on their websites. They might even feature job postings exclusively listed by current members. You can see an example of how a chapter might utilize a job board like this one at the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce website.
- How can chamber membership lead to more web traffic to my business?
- Web traffic could increase for your business since your business name will be listed in a member directory. There are multiple opportunities to advertise and sponsor chamber activities. Many chambers also provide resources on growing your business, which would include website traffic. Ultimately, increased exposure will give your business more visibility.
- How do chambers represent competing businesses in the same market?
- Chambers do allow competing businesses to join chapters, so this is a common concern. Each chapter has their own ability to regulate speakers, sponsorships, contributors and coordinators. It would be up to each chapter to make sure competing businesses are not overlapping one another in each of these areas.
Small businesses face an enormous amount of challenges before plans come to fruition. In addition to the resources the chamber of commerce provides, here are additional resources you might find useful as a small business owner: