Surviving the First Year: A 12-Month Timeline

Chamber volunteers often do not know that experienced professionals are available to help organize a chamber. They either become do-it-yourself organizers or hire an attorney to incorporate. After that, volunteers are left to accomplish the rest. 

While the strictly volunteer route is economical, hiring a professional will increase the likelihood of success due to increased efficiency. For example, drafting bylaws or creating a membership brochure could take several months for a committee to do. At the end of six months, the group could still be deciding on a logo and a budget. A chamber management professional can draft the bylaws in a week or so (if the right information is available) and print the membership brochure within a month. 
A professional can facilitate, even expedite, the formation of a new chamber. This is critical considering that volunteers and new members often lose interest when immediate results are not evident. 

Prospective members are quick to judge the strengths and weaknesses of the organization in the first year. A strong and efficient startup plan is essential for success. 

Time to Start Building: Four Quarters of Work 

Work can be divided into four quarters in the first year: 
• First Quarter—Study the Market and Design a Blueprint
• Second Quarter—Lay the Groundwork for  Success 
• Third Quarter—Build Upon the Foundation 
• Fourth Quarter—Evaluate and Make Corrections

First Quarter—Study the Market and Design a Blueprint 
When architects begin a new project, they first study their surroundings, acknowledge a need for the new structure, and design a blueprint for their work. This helps identify the goals of the project and gets everyone on the same page. The first phase in constructing a chamber is similar. It requires analysis and research about why the chamber should be formed. The primary question should be: Why does this new organization need to exist? The purpose may contain a sense of urgency, and it will serve as a rallying point for potential members. 

The next activity is required before starting any kind of business: Consider the competition. What other groups are serving the constituency? What services are these other groups offering? How satisfied are their members? 

Finally, it’s time to scope out potential members. How many people, companies, and small businesses are potential members? Do they represent a base large enough to support a chamber? Are they easily identifiable and easily reachable? The chamber must be able to contact members by email, mail, phone, or advertising for promotional purposes. 

Time spent studying the market potential is crucial to the success of any organization. 

Second Quarter— Lay the Groundwork for Success 
Once a blueprint is created, builders begin by laying a solid foundation on which the building will rest. While the foundation of a building is composed of concrete and cement, the foundation of a chamber is made up of enthusiastic and trustworthy people. 

The next phase of work requires forming a board of directors and committees. These individuals and groups commit to accomplishing the initial needs of the chamber. 
It is particularly important to identify recognized and experienced leaders. An effort spearheaded by such key players will gain immediate attention and credibility and help ensure a following during the critical startup period. These leaders will be the support beams. It is also wise, however, to see that the core group represents all segments of the constituency that the new organization will serve, not just a few leaders or a well-established clique. Broad support is needed to get the new group off the ground, and this will not happen unless all sides feel that they have representation among the decision makers. 

Once the organizing committee is set, the real work begins. Various tasks may be delegated to individuals and reported on when the group meets as a whole, similar to the way committees report to the full board when the organization is up and running. 

Third Quarter—Build Upon the Foundation 
At this point the foundation should be solid, meaning that the board and committees should be acting as a team and the direction should be clear for the new organization. At six months, members and interested parties will be judging the value of the chamber. It will be time to develop benefits and plan the first annual meeting or conference. 

Also, there should be a communications or marketing plan in place to inform members, prospective members, allies, and others about the accomplishments and goals of the chamber. Internal and external communications are essential during the first year. Drafting a strategic plan will provide a road map for the organization. 

Fourth Quarter—Evaluate and Make Corrections 
Now is the time to review your progress, evaluate the organization you have built, and realize what works and what does not. It should become apparent whether the suppositions, speculation, and work have paid off. Was the mission strong enough to draw a membership base? Were the communications, marketing, and meetings effective? Did industry leaders follow through on their commitments to invest in a guide for the chamber? 

As with any sound project, evaluation is essential and enables the board of directors to make corrections to the direction of the chamber. This is also the time to determine if the project was successful. Not all chambers succeed. There will be little reason to proceed if the members are not receiving what they want. 

Each quarter may extend beyond three months depending on the size of the tasks and the availability of consultants, and resources, including volunteer labor and funding. In the early stages, member commitment is key or each task will become more arduous for the leadership and volunteers. Creating a chamber is not easy and will take time and dedication from all stakeholders.