Krawczak: Chamber misunderstandings explained

If you’ve seen one chamber of commerce, you’ve seen one chamber of commerce.

In Michigan, October is designated as Chamber of Commerce month. In an effort to increase awareness of chambers in Michigan, The Michigan Association of Chamber Professionals created this designation along with promotional activities. Being that it is October, I thought this might be an appropriate time to write a column about Chambers. Chambers are often misunderstood so I’d like to take this time to share some facts and dispel some common misunderstandings.

Let’s start with a few facts. The exact year varies depending on what source you visit, but chambers have existed for many years, with some sources citing formation of the first chamber as early as 1599. There are more than 300 chambers of commerce in Michigan. They range in size from less than 75 members to more than 2,000 members. The Alpena Chamber is just shy of 500 members (we would love to achieve that benchmark!) and, based on budget, is considered a medium sized chamber.

There are some very common misunderstandings about chambers that we do our best to correct as they come up, but this is a good opportunity to shed some light on them to a wider audience.

Misunderstanding No. 1: Chambers are a function of government.

The reality is that chambers are private business organizations. They often have municipalities as members and partners but do not receive tax dollars directly.

Misunderstanding No. 2: Chambers are a charity.

This one is a little tricky because chambers are nonprofit organizations but they are not the charitable 501(c)3 organization you might be most familiar with. A 501(c)3 organization is a charitable organization. Chambers are designated as membership organizations, with a 501(c)6 status. They are designed to be lobbying organizations modeled after the concept that the power of many voices is greater than one individual voice.

Misunderstanding No. 3: Local chambers all fall under the structure of their state chamber, and state chambers answer to the United States Chamber of Commerce.

This myth is the one that causes us the most grief. Chambers are not structured under umbrella organizations. Each chamber of commerce is an individual organization and does not report to, or answer to, any organization other than its own Board of Directors (which represents the membership of that particular chamber). This causes us grief because we don’t always take the same position on legislative topics that the State or US Chambers take, but it is often assumed we do. We do belong to both the Michigan Chamber and the US Chamber, and we do take advantage of staff development and leadership opportunities provided by each organization.

Misunderstanding No. 4: Chambers have huge budgets and staff.

This is more of an assumption than a misunderstanding. Chamber staff sizes vary according to budget and size of the chamber. In Alpena, we have five staff members. We are proud of our budget but, like every organization, we have a list of projects we would like to work on but need to increase our staff and/or budget if we want to get to the projects sooner than later. We are also very careful about how we spend our budget. We examine potential projects through the lens of our mission and ask ourselves, “Is this a benefit to our membership?” Using that lens helps us make decisions fairly and in a way that allows us to have the greatest value proposition for our membership.

Each chamber is unique to meet the needs of its membership. Many medium to large size chambers focus more on policy and legislative issues, education for their members, economic and community development, and some additional direct member services. Smaller chambers tend to be more involved in community event planning and visitor assistance and tourism promotion (especially if their community lacks a convention and visitor’s bureau).

October being Chamber of Commerce Month in Michigan allowed me the opportunity to paint a picture of chambers for you. Of course I am biased but I strongly believe in the work chambers of commerce do for their members. No matter what county you live in, I’d encourage you to get to know your chamber and utilize their open door policy for any questions you may have. I know many of you remember my column about the strangest questions we ever received. Our current favorite from 2013 is, “How do you spell congoleum?” No question is ever too much for us so please do not hesitate to learn more about us.

Jackie Krawczak is the executive director of the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce. Her column runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays. Follow Jackie on Twitter @jkrawczak.