Northland News

Chambers being forced to change their ways

Rise of the Internet has cut Generation X interest in joining clubs and organizations

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

Baby-boomers were great joiners; Gen-Xers are not.

That difference in the way the two generations make connections, whether in their personal lives or while conducting business, has major implications for membership organizations, according to Columbus Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Dalby.

The leader of the Columbus Chamber since April 2011 was the guest speaker at last week's quarterly meeting of the Northland Area Business Association.

Dalby is now in his 19th year in chamber work, having served previous stints in Utah, New Mexico, Texas and Indiana before coming to central Ohio.

Around the mid-1990s, about the time use of the Internet became more widespread, membership in organizations such as the chamber or the area business group began showing a decline in growth and then steady drop-off, according to Dalby.

At one time, these organizations helped people tap into knowledge, meet new people, find membership lists, even pick up maps, he said. Dalby referred to Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, a book by Harvard University Professor Robert D. Putnam, which cited something as simple a decline in bowling leagues to postulate an increasing disconnectedness in modern society.

The shift also marked a rise in the profile of members of Generation X whose approach to things differed greatly from the baby boom generation, Dalby said. The latter joined chambers of commerce, business associations, service clubs and yes, bowling leagues.

"They felt like that was a way to connect and help the community," he said.

The generation that followed, he added, was less likely to see things that way and more interested in finding out, "What's in it for me?"

"That changed our operations as chambers of commerce," Dalby said. "It required all of us to take another look ... at what we were actually offering our membership."

Since taking over at the Columbus Chamber, Dalby said he has emphasized far more one-on-one service to members and far fewer traditional mixers as ways to create connections between existing members and new ones.

"Some people are tremendous networkers; most people are not," he said.

The chamber's membership includes some of the major companies based in Columbus, but 80 percent of the 1,700 members have 50 or fewer employees, Dalby said.

"The vast majority of our members are small and mid-sized businesses," he said. "They are our customers. Our goal is to help businesses thrive, period."

The Columbus Chamber is almost entirely privately funded, with less than 0.5 percent of the budget coming from public sources, he added.

The economy of central Ohio, as it generally does, weathered the recent recession better than most parts of the Midwest, according to Dalby. The presence of state government and one of the nation's largest universities helped with that.

"In general, the central Ohio economy is doing pretty well," he said.

Chamber members are "doing pretty solid," but remain cautious and have no major plans for expansion just yet, Dalby added.

When business owners, large or small, are ready to expand, he said they need to have expertise in three areas:

* Knowledge of their product or service.

* Financial and cash management.

* Marketing and sales.

Many entrepreneurs are good at two of those three things, but few excel at all three, Dalby said.

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