In addition to the beginning of a new school year, the Fall also brings other new beginnings for many small businesses – renewals on professional and civic memberships, which (at least for me) always seem to “fall” due in September and October.
Which leads to my annual questions for each organization: does the group measurably help my business? Does it make me smarter? Is it growing my network? Is it wasting my time… and my money?
I’ve had several conversations in the last few weeks with fellow business people around Orlando. And what keeps coming up is that many organizations simply aren’t serving the needs of small business people. People like me.
For many of these groups, the business model of recruiting new businesses to the organization, hosting paid events, and having ancillary groups with additional fees has become more important than actually serving the needs of the people that they purport to serve.
Let me give you a specific example, though I’m not really trying to pick on them (much): the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce.
I joined the ORCC in the aftermath of the hurricanes of 2004, because business in Central Florida was clobbered following the storms, and I was looking for like-business people to network and participate in a recovery.
I really liked what I saw in the Chamber, and went to as many events as I could, before I returned by to Nashville for a few years. Even while in Nashville I maintained my Chamber membership because it kept me tethered to the Orlando area and I knew that one day we’d be returning.
For those of you who have stuck with me so far in this post and thinking “you only get out what you put in” – hang tight. I’m getting there.
While in Nashville, I participated in Leadership Orlando, an eight month long programs where you commit 1 day per month with 70-80 of your fellow business leaders in the community to explore issues of social services, business development, health care, public safety, education, and regional planning around and about Central Florida.
Which meant, for me, I flew to Orlando for three days each month to participate. For eight months. At a cost of $3,000 (at the time) for the program plus travel, lodging, and meals. Trust me – I was committed to the effort.
I must say, that of all of the investments in time and money I have made with the Chamber, Leadership Orlando was by far the most effective program. I made several, now long time, friends there. And got to do numerous cool things, not the least of which was watching a shuttle launch from the VIP stands at complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center (very cool).
With all of that being said, for the past few years I’ve had this aching feeling: I’ve put a ton of effort into networking with the group, but what am I getting back?
From the Chamber Group in general, not much.
There are events like Listening to Leaders – usually an additional cost. Or Business at Breakfast – again, also usually at an additional cost. From a networking perspective, these events are really opportunities to be “rushed” by your fellow Chamber members for selling you financial services or insurance or real estate or whatever it is that they’re hawking.
In truth, the Chamber’s direction has changed since I joined. When I joined ORCC, it was THE business organization in Central Florida.
A couple of years back, an umbrella organization was formed called the Central Florida Partnership, which moved the ORCC under its auspices as simply one of four “Lines of Business” (Leadership Orlando also being – now – a separate “Line of Business”).
What does the Central Florida Partnership do? Well, their main focus is advocacy or regional issues. Things like bringing light rail and high speed rail to Central Florida.
And not growing my business.
I’m trying not to get into the personality issues and motives behind all of these changes, because they really are not essential to the point I’m trying to make – albeit poorly and with too many words.
The point is this – for me, I’m thinking extra long and hard before I write a check to the Chamber this year, because they are not helping me.
They are not offering substantive networking opportunities. They barely recognize the wave of social networking that is changing the way people connect and transact business. They are not putting me in touch my fellow Orlando area business people, and they’re certainly not bringing people to my door.
They continue to bring back speakers like “The Telephone Lady” on how to answer the telephone. Seriously.
Anyone that knows me, knows that I’m not one to sit back and let other people do the heavy lifting of building my network for me. Some days, it feels like all I really get accomplished is networking and a degree of business development.
But going forward there has to be a value proposition for groups wanting my association dollars. There has to be value derived commensurate with the money I’m spending and the time I’m investing.
Today for lunch I’m meeting a recruiter from a very nice club in Orlando. I know lunch will be nice, I know the pitch will be practiced.
But top of mind for me will be this – I know what I can do for you. What are you going to do for me.
As you write your renewal checks for your professional organizations, you should be asking these very same questions, too, if you haven’t already.