What is the Chambers of Commerce

 – And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world.

In the realm of brands, products, and organizations, misconceptions often run rampant.
But when it comes to the enigmatic term “chamber of commerce,” confusion and misguided assumptions reign supreme, despite its widespread recognition. The lack of understanding is largely self-inflicted, as chambers in different towns, cities, regions, states, and even nations operate in distinct ways, each with its own unique focus. To shed light on this perplexing subject, we present a “living” document crafted by the brilliant minds at the American Chamber of Commerce Executives staff. This guide, Version V as of 11/2/09, will continue to evolve with input from chambers and other stakeholders.

So, what exactly is a chamber of commerce? It is an organization formed by businesses with the shared goal of advancing their collective interests while simultaneously nurturing their community, region, state, or nation. In towns, cities, and other territories, business owners voluntarily band together to form these local societies or networks, advocating for the greater good of the community, economic prosperity, and the interests of businesses. Chambers of commerce have been a cornerstone of American society for over two centuries, with many established even before the jurisdictions they represent. While they may go by different names – board of trade, business council, and more – for the purpose of this primer, they are all chambers of commerce.

Chamber missions may vary, but they tend to revolve around five primary goals: creating attractive communities that allure residents, visitors, and investors; promoting these communities; striving to ensure future prosperity through a pro-business climate; representing the unified voice of employers; and reducing obstacles through well-connected networks. Chambers share common features as well. They are typically led by private-sector employers, self-funded, organized around boards or committees of passionate volunteers, and operate independently. Their ultimate ambition is to foster sustained prosperity in their community or region, built upon thriving employers. Most chambers staunchly advocate for the free market system, resisting any attempts to overly burden private sector enterprise and investment.

Local businesses voluntarily become paying members of a chamber, although non-profits, quasi-public, and even public sector employers may also contribute dues to join. The membership, acting collectively, elects a board of directors or executive council to shape policy and guide the chamber’s operations. The board or executive committee then hires a chief executive and an appropriate number of staff members to run the organization efficiently.

 – And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

In most countries, the term “chamber of commerce” is regulated by statute, although this is not the case in the United States. A chamber’s identity is protected only by trademark, copyright, and domain name rules. Its existence and purpose are defined solely by state corporation law. While chambers often collaborate closely with government entities, they are not part of the government itself, although many consider effectively influencing elected and appointed officials to be one of their most vital functions.

As of now, approximately 13,000 chambers are registered in the official Worldchambers Network Registry. In the United States alone, there are around 4,000 chambers of commerce with at least one full-time staff member, and thousands more operate solely on a volunteer basis.

Membership in a chamber of commerce is based on a private, volunteer model, which exists not only in the USA but also in many other nations. Companies are not obligated to become members, resulting in varying sizes of membership rolls across North American chambers. The number of member firms can range from a few dozen to over 20,000, making it impossible to define an “average” or typical chamber of commerce. Chambers function differently from Better Business Bureaus or trade associations, which can bind their members under a formal operations doctrine and remove them if necessary. Instead, businesses and employers pay dues to belong to a chamber and expect to receive the benefits of membership as long as they continue to invest in the organization. While most chambers accept any reputable business as a member, dues investment schedules can sometimes lead to intended or unintended exclusivity.

It’s important to note that, in most cases, it is the company itself that becomes a member, not individual employees. However, a member company is encouraged to involve numerous senior-level employees in the chamber’s work. While multiple individuals from a given company may identify themselves as “members” of the chamber, only the organization they work for is counted when determining the chamber’s size. Companies are free to join multiple chambers, and many mid-size to large firms do so, especially if they are neighbors, in order to further advance their market or policy interests. Dues amounts are typically based on the size of the member company, whether measured by employee count or annual revenue, rather than the number of individuals engaged in the chamber from that company. Some chambers have adopted pay-as-you-go or funding models based on specific categories or quantity of services provided to member companies. Occasionally, chambers may offer “bundled” memberships, allowing a single dues investment to qualify a company for membership in a group of chambers. This concept, known as “federation” membership, can even extend to the national level.

Chambers of commerce are intricate entities that play a vital role in advancing the interests of businesses and communities. They are diverse in their missions, yet united in their pursuit of prosperity and economic growth. With thousands of chambers worldwide, each with its own distinct characteristics, the chamber of commerce landscape is as dynamic and vibrant as the businesses it represents. So, the next time you encounter the term “chamber of commerce,” remember that it is not a monolithic entity but rather a collective force striving to shape a better future for businesses and communities alike.

In the realm of chambers of commerce, the concept of a service territory is far from a simple geographical boundary defined by political or legal jurisdictions. Instead, it is a fluid and ever-evolving catchment area that is shaped by the businesses that make up a chamber’s membership. These businesses, scattered across various locations, essentially create the footprint of the chamber and establish its claim to a particular territory. In some cases, neighboring organizations may establish formal or informal agreements regarding their borders.

While a chamber’s name often reflects its approximate territory, there are no hard and fast rules governing the number of business-led economic advancement groups, or chambers, that can exist within a given area. In fact, within the city limits of Chicago alone, there are more than 20 chambers of commerce and similar organizations. Even in cases where a county or regional chamber has been established and incorporated for generations, there may be numerous local and town chambers operating independently within the same turf.

The existence of this multitude of chambers can be attributed to a variety of factors. Historical circumstances, population fluctuations, differing ambitions, and the needs of employers have all played a role in the formation of chambers. In the past, geographic isolation often necessitated the creation of separate organizations to represent local businesses and address community issues. While advancements in infrastructure, transportation, and communications have connected businesses with their counterparts in neighboring communities and even foreign countries, chambers have remained essential institutions. Without a valid purpose, chambers would have been abandoned by their boards, members, and funders long ago.

 – Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.

As suburban and exurban populations have grown, new chambers have emerged to advocate for the interests of businesses in these communities. Sometimes, a crisis like a hurricane or an opportunity such as attracting a rail connection or promoting an airport expansion has led to the formation of a chamber that continues to thrive for decades. Disagreements or dissatisfaction with the direction, position, or focus of an existing chamber have also given rise to the establishment of new chambers.

Similar to any other business, chambers can dissolve or merge based on economic or other conditions. The recent economic recession and a growing focus on regionalism have prompted a closer examination of the benefits of mergers.

In the realm of chamber relationships, there are no binding contracts or government regulations that tie chambers in the US and Canada together. There is no chapter or franchise arrangement between or among them. While neighboring chambers may have strong relationships, these connections are voluntary and informal, not mandated or written. Chambers do interact with one another across the nation and even globally, with many maintaining formal memberships in other chambers. However, this network is informal, and no single entity holds authority over others. Local chambers may choose to become paying members of their state and national chambers of commerce, but this connection is based on voluntary membership and does not entail control or governance. Many chamber executives also join professional associations of their peers for professional development purposes, but this does not involve relinquishing self-determination.

One of the most challenging aspects for the general public, media, government officials, and even some businesses to understand is the lack of inherent hierarchical structure in the chamber world. It can be confusing to assume that thousands of entities sharing the same name are related or have a structured lineage. However, in the US, this is not the case. When business and economic policy priorities align, chambers of all sizes strive to work together and speak with a unified voice. However, conflicting positions may arise on certain issues or at different levels of chambers.

For example, the head of a community-based organization may mistakenly assume that a position taken by a state chamber is shared by their local chamber. Similarly, a large metropolitan chamber may strongly support an infrastructure project or educational reform initiative that is not embraced by suburban chambers within the same metropolitan area. Coalitions of chambers may unite under the leadership of the United States Chamber to advocate for or against a bill affecting border crossings, but this coalition may only represent a fraction of the thousands of chambers in the US. Individual chambers may take contradictory stands on the same international visitor policy. The US Chamber can mobilize its member chambers and associations into a unified grassroots lobbying force on certain issues, but this does not encompass all chambers. Some chambers voluntarily enter into a “Federation” relationship with the United States Chamber, which involves more consistent engagement in federal policy activities, but this does not compromise their self-determination.

Since businesses are not obligated to join a chamber, and territories often overlap, it can be challenging for any single organization, regardless of its size, to claim that it speaks for all businesses. However, chambers earn the privilege of representing business interests by attracting a diverse range of employers to their membership and leadership, and by utilizing their collective voice on significant policy initiatives. Generally, smaller chambers and the communities they represent may be less active on the policy and advocacy front. Nevertheless, even small organizations take stands on regional issues such as school funding and road development.

The process of choosing and articulating specific policy positions varies among chambers and issues. Typically, a vote or consensus among a chamber’s board of directors determines the stance taken on any given issue. With the increased involvement of public sector and non-profit employers in chambers, consensus-building has become more challenging at all levels. While chamber boards are independent, they often consider the recommendations of state and national organizations when addressing larger issues. The US Chamber and state chambers provide local counterparts with extensive background information and adaptable sample documents. Local chambers then debate, adopt, adapt, or reject these recommendations. Similarly, local, regional, and state chambers express their opinions on legislation that directly affects them, hoping for shared support from others. Professional associations like the American Chamber of Commerce Executives facilitate knowledge-sharing among member chambers regarding state and local public policy issues and strategies.

 – For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.