An 11-Step Plan

The following 11 categories outline the general steps for organizing a new chamber. Not every activity will fit neatly into the quarters. Some will require ongoing attention, such as membership development and budgeting, while others can be completed and closed.

1. Mission and Research

The first consideration in forming a new chamber is the mission statement, a description of what the organization is and whom it serves. It answers the questions, What business are we in? Who are our customers?

A mission statement is usually one or two sentences and should be broad enough to enable an organization to increase its goals and services without outgrowing its mission for many years. This is also the time to check with potential members about their interest in and willingness to join and support a chamber. It would be beneficial to hold a conference call or meet with a focus group to learn what it would want from a new chamber. Other sources to consult with include accountants, attorneys, lobbyists, and other professionals.

2. Champions

Nearly every chamber has a champion: a person or group of individuals dedicated to forming the organization. One or more of these people will act as the informal leader until an election or appointment formally recognizes a board of directors. If the chamber has not found a champion, one should be found as soon as possible by determining who the perceived leader is.

Champions help draft the mission statement with chamber staff. They are able to identify potential leaders and members, as well as advise which benefits will be valuable to the members. They may need to raise the initial working capital as startup funds may be necessary for meeting notices, mailings, printing, and incorporation.

3. Turning Point

At this point, only about one month of work should have been invested. After researching and identifying the champion and potential members, determine whether to proceed. Before investing great amounts of time and money, let this be a turning point. If potential members have not shown sufficient interest, or there is not a reason for forming, now is the time to retreat.

This would be a good time to start keeping records of the meetings. These minutes will serve to protect the chamber and meeting attendees from illegal antitrust actions. Meeting notes also become interesting historical documents as future leaders look back at the founding discussions and participants.

4. Organizational Structure

As a starting point, an applicable structure should be outlined. Because chambers are autonomous and fit their operations to local needs, the formal structure will vary considerably. Most chambers have a similar flow of responsibility: The membership elects a board of directors who determines policy and hires the professional staff to handle the business of the organization (e.g, committees, divisions, task forces, councils, and bureaus).

Popular structures can be classified into two general categories:

  • Traditional—An elected board and officers set up standing committees in major goal areasfor problem solving.
  • Council Task Force—The board designates a director or officer to serve as the liaison onspecially developed councils. The councils cover major areas of interest such as economicdevelopment, socioeconomic issues, and governmental affairs.

The councils act as policy-forming groups by assigning specific problems or goals to task forces for research and evaluation. The task forces are composed of select experts from the membership and exist only as long as necessary to complete the assigned task. The board approves the final council recommendations.

Bylaws and articles of incorporation are additional structural necessities. Since chambers of commerce are nonprofit tax-exempt organizations, receiving IRS approval is mandatory.

Section 501 (c)(6) covers chambers of commerce and provides for their exemption. To apply for a tax exemption, obtain Form 1024 from your IRS district office. The articles of incorporation, bylaws, and a general statement of purpose for the organization should accompany your application. These documents will remain on file with the IRS and serve as the basis for granting the exemption. Bylaws typically include some or all of the following:

  • Purpose of the chamber•Membership categories
  • Membership qualifications
  • Membership privileges•Description of Board of directors
  • Qualifications of officers, their duties, and terms of office
  • Provisions for hiring and entering into contracts
  • Nomination and election procedures
  • Methods for filling board vacancies
  • Process of bylaw revisions
  • Dissolution processes
  • Audits
  • Indemnification identification of standing and ad hoc committees

An example of a chamber of commerce bylaw can be found in the bylaws section

During the organizational process you should use the skills of an attorney and CPA. The exemption letter from the IRS should be kept in a safe place since it contains the identification number needed in future reports, such as Form 990. This report, and others that may be required from time to time, must be filed yearly to maintain a tax-exempt status. Now is also the time to file for a federal identification number. Most banks will require the federal ID before they will open a checking account for your chamber.

For further information, visit the IRS website specific to tax information for charities and nonprofits at https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits.

5. Finances

As in business, adequate resources and capital are necessary for accomplishment and growth. To determine anticipated income, consider the most common forms of chamber revenue. These include member dues, conference registration fees, sponsorships, and advertising.

New chambers depend on member dues as a primary source of income until other programs are developed. It is therefore important to set a dues structure that will provide a solid base of funds. To determine the amount of dues paid by a member, you need to consider the total population of potential members and the likelihood that about 50% will join. A smaller number of potential members requires a much higher dues fee. Conversely, the larger the potential membership, the lower the dues amount.

Expenses also help determine the amount of dues. After you total all the anticipated expenses, divide that by the number of members you expect to join in the first year. The result will be the approximate amount of dues necessary per member to finance operations. Include line items in your expenses for basics such as postage, printing, travel, meetings, technology, and money for a contingency (savings) fund as well as insurance for the chamber and the board.

Developing benefits and services for members will cost money. This is the time to decide the number of educational offerings, plans for a trade show, and the costs of creating a certification program. The most advantageous services you offer to your members, and nonmembers at a potentially higher fee, will be the ones that generate income.

Be sure that leadership reviews the budget and understands how and from where the funds are generated. In addition, make suggestions and include them in the meeting minutes or in a policy manual on what safeguards will be used to protect the assets.

Sound financial management and the handling and reporting of funds to the proper bodies are essential. The IRS may call for an audit or an examination at any time. A yearly audit by an outside independent accounting firm is advisable.

Also, accurate minutes of board meetings should be recorded and filed. Minutes are the official record of the organization’s policy decisions and serve as a legal document and history of the chamber’s development.

6. Physical Operations

Members expect a lot from their chambers when they pay dues. They want to know if there will be a headquarters established for the new organization that is centrally or strategically located, as well as if the functions of the chamber transfer from volunteer to volunteer each year.

While much can be accomplished by volunteers, it is more likely that certain operations will need to be handled by a paid staff. It is important to decide where the membership database will live, how dues will be billed, and where checks will be received and deposited.

A new chamber has several options for its physical operations, including the following:

Volunteer Driven: New chambers frequently consider that all operations will be done by volunteers. However, it is difficult to expect a volunteer to accomplish the day-to-day administrative tasks that are required to maintain a chamber. Further, with litigation and liability arising often, a volunteer-managed chamber may soon find itself in trouble.

Volunteers, Consultants, and Part-Time Staff: New chambers are likely to hire consultants for specific jobs, such as lobbying or accounting, and assign certain tasks to volunteers and committees, such as collecting dues and writing newsletters. The advantage of a dual system of operations is economic savings. The disadvantage is a shortage of staff to accomplish the mission and goals.

Professional Staffing: Hiring staff to operate the chamber is a viable option, though the most expensive. The board is responsible for hiring and firing, staff benefits, training, and leasing or purchasing office space and equipment. The increased costs of full-time staffing is reflected in the chamber budget and causes member dues to increase accordingly.

7. Membership

As soon as possible, contact prospective members should be about joining the organization. First, you need to create a membership application and brochure, which should include the appropriate IRS disclosures and necessary disclaimers. Can members join with a credit card? Does a current member have to sponsor a new member?

Create a membership application that can be faxed , mailed, emailed or submitted via a digital form. It is also time to design a brochure that describes the purposes and benefits of joining. It can be distributed by the Membership Committee and used to respond to inquiries about the chamber.

After the application is designed, you should undertake a membership drive. The leadership or committee will want to consider compiling or purchasing potential mailing and email lists, creating incentives for joining, and setting goals for a membership drive. During the first year, you can recognize initial members by offering recognition as “charter” or “founding” members of the chamber.

Decide what kinds of communications new members will receive when they join. Consider the value of a prompt reply, a member orientation kit, a certificate or plaque, and a wallet ID card.

8. Meetings

Since chambers are composed of individuals and businesses seeking common information, board and committee meetings, webinars, annual meetings, educational sessions, conferences, and trade shows are popular methods for sharing information and accomplishing goals.

In the early months, meetings should be held with well-defined agendas and the involvement of the champions or leadership. Conference calls and video conferences are another way of meeting, though it is advantageous to meet in person.

The first-year calendar should include quarterly board meetings to handle the decision making necessary as the organization grows. Committees may want to meet in conjunction with the board. Most members anticipate an annual meeting to network and collaborate with colleagues.

9. Public Relations

Early in the formation process, a news release should be prepared to announce the chamber, its mission, its leadership, and contact information. Distribute it to every organization and publication that may be interested in the new chamber.

Develop a logo representative of the chamber members and mission. Stationery and envelopes fall under the category of public relations since they convey an impression of the chamber. Be sure that the letterhead looks professional. Consider using color, a tagline to describe the Chamber’s mission, and a listing of the leadership. In addition, create similar electronic letterhead for online pages and emails.

Develop a web page for your new organization that includes its mission, contact information, and instructions for becoming involved. Since communications are part of a public relations effort, you should start thinking about what form of communication the members prefer.

Another key component of branding is having a presence on social media. These accounts can be maintained by the staff or volunteers, and will help promote events and connect members.

10. Government Affairs

The primary mission of many chambers is to influence public policy. For some new groups, hiring a lobbyist is the first step. Further, becoming a member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will give you access to its team of lobbying experts.

Several ways exist to monitor government activity, often influenced by the scope (local, state, national, or international) and the capabilities of varying services. A successful chamber may hire one or more lobbyists as employees to conduct research and influence the issues. Other options include retaining lobbyists on an as-needed basis, subscribing to publications and services to help you monitor issues as they arise, joining other groups interested in similar issues, or assigning the entire task to volunteers and committees.

Since chambers are made up of members who have expressed an interest in similar issues, creating a grassroots effort for lobbying has proven effective. Chambers use telephone trees, rely on members who know elected officials, and undertake letter-writing campaigns to influence government lawmakers. Another member-driven effort is to contribute time and money to political campaigns or create a chamber-sponsored political action committee (PAC).

You should also draft position papers to ensure that all members understand the chamber’s positions. They can also be used to educate the press and lawmakers about the organization’s legislative priorities.

11. Strategic Planning

The significance of a strategic plan, is to commit the chamber’s objectives and action steps to writing. A key aspect of creating such a plan,which should cover a time period of one to five years, is to consider the environment in which the chamber will be operating and identifying the factors that will affect it, such as competition, government regulation, and anticipated crises.

Normally, writing a plan is conducted in a dedicated retreat-like setting with leadership and core volunteers. The use of an outside facilitator enables impartial input and insight. The facilitator’s job is to advance the process and ensure that the plan is completed in the allotted time.

The recommended time to write the strategic plan is during the last half of the first year when member input is sufficient, and chamber efforts can be evaluated and directions can be set for year two.

In Summary

Keep your members engaged through committee and board assignments, channel the strength of your volunteers, and stay focused on your chamber’s top priorities. A strong, active chamber improves the economic vitality of the community and enhances the quality of life for all.