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Misconceptions abound regarding many brands, products and organizations. When it comes to the term “chamber of commerce,” confusion and erroneous assumptions are even more likely, even though almost everyone has heard of the term. The lack of understanding is in large part self-inflicted because chambers in various towns, cities, regions, states and even nations focus on different things and actually operate in different ways. 

A chamber of commerce is an organization of businesses seeking to further their collective interests, while advancing their community, region, state or nation. Business owners in towns, cities and other territories voluntarily form these local societies/networks to advocate on behalf of the community at large, economic prosperity and business interests. Chambers have existed in the U.S. for more than two centuries, with many having been established before the jurisdictions they represent. 

Chamber missions vary, but they all tend to focus to some degree on five primary goals: Building communities (regions/states/nations) to which residents, visitors and investors are attracted; promoting those communities; striving to ensure future prosperity via a pro-business climate; representing the unified voice of the employer community; and reducing transactional friction through well-functioning networks.

Local businesses are voluntary paying members of a chamber (non-profits, quasi-public and even public sector employers also sometimes pay dues to belong). The membership, acting collectively, elects a board of directors and/or executive council to set policy for, and guide the workings of, the chamber. The board or executive committee then hires a chief executive (various titles), plus an appropriate and affordable number of staff to run the organization.

Currently, there are roughly 3,000 chambers of commerce in the U.S. with at least one full-time staff person and thousands more established as strictly volunteer entities.

 The most difficult aspect for the general public, media, government officials and even some businesses to understand is that there is no inherent hierarchical structure in the chamber world. This can be extremely confusing to those who naturally assume that a few thousand entities sharing the same name must be related and that some ordered lineage must exist among them. That is simply not the case in the U.S. 

To illustrate: The head of a community-based organization like a retired citizen group may wrongly assume that a position taken by a state chamber is shared and endorsed by their local chamber. Likewise, a large metropolitan chamber of commerce could take a strong position in favor of an infrastructure project or educational reform initiative, which will not be embraced or supported by suburban chambers operating within the same metro region.

The term “chamber of commerce” is one of the oldest and most well-recognized brands in the world, but there is significant public misunderstanding of its meaning. There is an old adage in the chamber world: “If you’ve seen one chamber, you’ve seen one.” Others who find themselves frustrated with a desire to apply universal truths to chamber of commerce models point to the Chinese parable of the seven blind men touching different parts of an elephant and coming away describing it differently (“It’s a snake . . . no it’s a tree . . . no it’s a brush on a rope . . .”). In all cases, the whole of a chamber of commerce is greater than the sum of its parts, programs, people and participants.

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This article was adapted from information from the American Chamber of Commerce Executives and Western Association of Chamber Executives. The Napa Chamber of Commerce is lead by Chief Executive Officer Chris Messina.