Are chambers of commerce overwhelmingly ignoring the importance of one key issue of their members?
It might be a provocative question, but the answer seems to be clear when we compare the data collected from local chambers through the recent Endorsements and PACs annual survey and the data from members of these chambers through the Chamber Performance Survey. Chambers are overwhelmingly ignoring the importance of electing business-friendly candidates.
In this year’s annual Endorsements and PACs survey, only 34% of the Association’s participating chambers said that either the board of directors or the chamber’s political action committee (PAC) endorses candidates for public office. The percentage of chambers that make endorsements is exactly the same as the percentage from last year. The only variation in the data that makes up the 34% is more chambers reported endorsements as coming from their PAC (61%) instead of their board of directors (39%).
What Members Want
These numbers contradict what the data tells us business members want from their chamber. The W.A.C.E. Chamber Performance Survey asked business members of local chambers how important it is for their chamber to help elect business-friendly candidates. Overall, 71% of more than 18,000 responses answered it was “Very Important” for the chamber to help elect business-friendly candidates.
The contradictory details really emerge when you look at the Chamber Performance Survey data separated by year. If you go back five years, the results for 2014 show 66% of local chamber members thought helping business-friendly candidates get elected was very important. Then in 2015, the data increased to 69%, followed by 71% in 2016, and 74% in 2017 and 2018.
The question then becomes, why is the number of chambers engaged in endorsements and other election activities remaining the same, year after year, in an industry that repeatedly talks about the importance of distancing itself from the “that’s the way we have always done it” mentality?
In fact, if anything, fewer chambers seem to be involved in candidate endorsements now than five years ago when 42% of participants said their chamber made endorsements.
If members find helping business-friendly candidates get elected so important, why is the industry so reluctant to get involved in candidate endorsements?
Lack of Courage
According to the Endorsements and PACs survey, the most common reason chambers said they don’t endorse candidates is that their board of directors do not have the courage to endorse candidates (28%). Another 22% of chambers said it might hurt their relationship with their city. The third and possibly the most interesting response was 21% reported being prohibited by their bylaws from being political.
Lack of courage can be changed through knowledge and leadership. The fear of damaging relationships with the city is not supported by any data collected by W.A.C.E., as 43% of chambers that endorse candidates or issues saw improved relations with their city or government officials, while 36% saw no obvious impact.
The fact that some chambers have completely handcuffed themselves from getting involved in an area that they legally have every right to be involved in by writing it in their bylaws is something I can’t explain.
It’s fair to say that helping business-friendly candidates get elected can mean more than endorsing candidates, but only 41% of businesses participating in the Chamber Performance Survey overall say chambers are performing very well in this area. Is it a coincidence that the percentage of businesses that report their chamber is performing well in this area more closely reflects the percentage of chambers that endorse candidates? Maybe.
The better question is: are we as an industry going to do something to reflect the clear and growing desire of our members, or are we going to keep doing things the way we have always done them and expect our organizations to increase in relevance?
Russell Lahodny is vice president of W.A.C.E. and vice president of local chamber relations at the California Chamber.