Membership

Chamber’s New ‘Investor’ Membership Model Departs From Tradition

By / Jan 31, 2017 (iStock/Thinkstock)

The Lancaster, Pa., Chamber of Commerce & Industry has shifted to a new investor model of membership that opens up its business services to nonmembers a la carte.

To remain relevant, broaden its reach, and refocus on its core purpose, the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry is ditching its old membership model.

The new one is an “investor” model that creates two separate units: one for business services and the other for community impact. Business services, including training and networking events, are offered a la carte for a fee and don’t require a membership. The community impact unit focuses on the organization’s core work “to leverage the private sector’s voice and create a better business climate,” said Cheryl Irwin-Bass, the chamber’s vice president and COO.

For the community impact unit, “members”-turned-“investors” invest in the chamber at different levels.  In the previous model, companies paid at different levels based on the number of their employees, and the lowest rate was about $430. In the investor model, companies choose from three tiers—called catalyst, visionary, and legacy—each of which offers three levels of support. The lowest is $500, and the highest is $15,000.

Investors do not necessarily get a greater number of services and benefits than a la carte participants, but they support the chamber’s work to advance businesses. “The benefit is a better community,” Irwin-Bass said.

“Dues, all along, went toward the betterment of the business community,” but some companies saw membership fees as “entrance fees” to participation, Irwin-Bass explained. Separating the business services from the community impact means “no one feels like they’re paying a lump sum and getting all these things they don’t want.” She added that the two units now have dedicated staff as well.

This approach allows companies and individuals to take advantage of the chamber’s business services regardless of how large or established they are. Businesses that are just starting out can attend mixers and other events without having to join the organization, and more established companies can opt to contribute more to the chamber’s work for the broader business community.

This shift helps encourage diversity, because “it’s tearing down the barrier of membership,” Irwin-Bass said. Previously, individuals couldn’t attend events if their companies weren’t members. Now, individuals can join in, along with smaller companies that may have been unable to afford it before.

The chamber began considering different membership models amid concerns of stagnating membership, and it recognized that its model was not sustainable. But it wanted to decide on changes “from a position of strength—and not wait until we were tanking,” Irwin-Bass said. So the group took about two and a half years to consider different models. Now, “we are better positioned to meet people where they’re at—and with what they want to participate and engage in.”

The investor model shifts the focus to the end user, Irwin-Bass said. “It wasn’t, ‘How do we survive or how do we make more money?’ but ‘How do we remain relevant, better serve businesses, and provide more value?’”

The investor model also helps the chamber provide workforce training to more people, because it opens up these opportunities to people who do not join the organization. Irwin-Bass also pointed to generational differences, suggesting that more young people might pay to attend an event a la carte. “Young people are not necessarily willing to join something but are willing to engage,” she said.

On January 1, the chamber began transitioning members to the new model, and the initial response has been positive. The group has been encouraging investors to invest at higher levels. In doing so, “it’s really about each company’s culture and mindset—what they believe they should be giving back to the community in which they operate,” Irwin-Bass said.

Allison Torres Burtka

Allison Torres Burtka, a longtime association journalist, is a freelance writer and editor in West Bloomfield, Michigan. More »

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