Chambers CAN Do and Are Doing BIG Things

Dave Kilby

I had the opportunity, along with W.A.C.E. Chair Chris Romer, ACE, the president/CEO of the Vail Valley (CO) Partnership, to recently address the leadership of the Santa Maria Valley (CA) Chamber on the topic of chambers doing BIG things.

In preparing for this talk, it was amazing to see that chambers around the West ARE — even during COVID — doing great things that will REALLY matter and make a difference to their members and their communities, including:

• Raising the bulk of the funding for the successful passage of a local bond measure for a new community center.

• Diversity and inclusion training.

• Regional/community vision projects.

• Workforce and talent pipeline programs.

• Operating an assistance center for companies wanting to do business with government.

• Fundraising millions of dollars over a five-year period for advocacy for major infrastructure projects.

• Recruiting, training and electing business-friendly candidates to office.

• Community branding projects.

• Supporting a ballot measure for public safety, including increased jail capacity.

• Training programs for front-line workers for dealing with mental health/homelessness issues.

• A “green team” to attract new businesses.

Traits of Active Chambers

What was also apparent was that the chambers doing BIG projects all seemed to have these foundational key ingredients:

• Long-term, visionary outlook

• Willingness to make BIG decisions quickly and not study things to death.

• A “no fear” approach to fundraising — often with significant board and key stakeholder engagement to get the money to get the job done.

• Leaders on the chamber board who are BIG thinkers — not “protectors of the past.”

• A more regional view, acknowledging that some things go beyond the lines on a map and involve more than one city or community.

• Gathering the data and listening to your members about the problems facing their businesses and the community.

Chris Romer offered the following: “Most chambers do a good job listening to their members, but when it comes to moving on and taking action, many have work to do…and that’s where our opportunity really exists…leading and taking action.”

Strong Answer Needed

There are at least two questions that are connected to this discussion and the leaders of a chamber need to be on the same page and have a strong answer to the following:

1. What business is the chamber in?

2. What do we want the chamber to be known for?

In my opinion, a good answer to #1 is: “We’re in the solutions business.” And the answer to #2 is: “We’re known to be the organization that CAN get things done.”

As many of you may know, I’m fond of the following quote from former President Ronald Reagan: “No community will ever be much better than its business community causes it to be.”

But I would change it slightly to say, “No community will ever be much better than its chamber of commerce causes it to be.”

I’m sure we can all agree that there’s a lot of BIG things that need to be done. Now’s the time to quit talking and for chambers to lead and start doing.

The Chamber is COURAGE!

Dave Kilby is president and CEO of W.A.C.E. and executive vice president of corporate affairs at the California Chamber.