Prospering by association: How small business and industry associations can benefit your business

By Stephen Ball, SVP, Business Banking

Is joining a small business or industry association right for you?

Owning a small business can be all-consuming – in time, in money, in energy. But what happens when legal or regulatory changes loom? Or when your employees need specific training? Or when you’re looking for business-building contacts at networking events? Many business owners have answered these questions by joining small business or industry associations. Some associations focus on the interests of small businesses across all sectors. Others are industry associations that serve companies of all sizes in a specific sector such as food processing, manufacturing, retail or healthcare. And, while advocacy can be central to the mission of both, most also offer a variety of business-enhancing benefits. 

These differences raise questions:  Which can deliver the best return on investment?  Should business owners consider joining more than one?

Small business associations
As laws and regulations change – or need to be changed – dialogue with legislators and regulators is critical – particularly when issues such as tax reform loom on the national agenda.  Many small business owners feel the need to ensure their voices are heard, and their needs are addressed by lawmakers. That can be a compelling motivation for joining a small business association. 

One example of a small business association is the Chicago region’s Small Business Advocacy Council. SBAC represents their members on issues at all legislative and regulatory levels – city, state and federal. For a broad range of small business types, they advocate on issues including minimum wage and paid sick leave, lowering LLC fees in Illinois – the highest in the nation – and eliminating potentially burdensome tax record-keeping requirements in Washington, D.C. On a more local level, they advocate for the city’s 7,300 restaurants, where issues such as public way usage for outdoor dining are tackled. For retailers, they take a position on simplified sign usage and approval rules. 

Another organization that is focused on taking the small business message to state capitols and Washington, D.C. is the National Federation of Independent Businesses. On Capitol Hill, the NFIB advocates for regulations that help small businesses manage issues such as energy costs and in Illinois for example, they advocate on issues such as workers’ compensation and business taxes.

Industry associations
For other business owners, the industry sector in which they operate determines very specific laws and regulations with which they must comply, no matter their size.  For these companies, it may make sense to join with others to advocate on their industry-specific issues.

The organizations that advocate for a single industry are often large and cover the entire nation. For example, the National Association of Manufacturers is made up of small and large manufacturers from every industrial sector and has member companies in all 50 states. 

Because their member companies often vary in size, many industry associations provide tiered membership dues depending on revenues, numbers of business locations, employees and other measurements. Some also have state or local affiliates that provide a specialized voice on industry-specific issues.

Industry associations can also provide eyes and ears in Washington, D.C. and at the state level, so members know when newly enacted laws and regulations are coming into force and what it could take to comply. For example, regulations for nutrition labels on foods and beverages are set to change, but the implementation date became a moving target. The Grocery Manufacturers of America was not only deeply involved in advocacy during the debate leading up to the new rules, but they kept members updated on implementation through the association’s website. 

Such topics are also often covered at industry associations’ national, state or local events. At these gatherings, members of all sizes have the opportunity to network and to trade knowledge and insights.

Beyond a voice with lawmakers, what benefits can you expect?
Benefits in addition to advocacy are offered by both small business and industry associations. They can include discounted products and services, health and business insurance, free advertising to other members, networking with both local suppliers and customers, and even shared office space.  

Supporting the specialized needs of various functions within a company is also among the benefits offered by both small business and industry associations.  These can vary from seminars to credentialing coursework for job functions from manufacturing process control, to restaurant food handling, to legal matters or finance.

Another time and energy-consuming priority for small business owners is staying on top of market changes and new resources. Small business and industry associations; through websites, newsletters, working groups and meetings; help ensure their members are up to date on business intelligence.  

Some groups, including Chicago’s Women’s Business Development Center, sponsor events such as their Small Business Forum and Resource Fair, where experts and vendors provide advice to established businesses and startups on topics from loans to taxes and more. 

Bottom line: Invest wisely
In an ever-changing environment, small business owners need to stay on top of legal, regulatory and market developments.  It’s important to ensure that experienced advocates represent your point of view to decision makers and that you get market intelligence from experts.  Both of these time-consuming priorities can be effectively handled by associations.  Whether you decide to join a small business or industry association, or more than one, depends on multiple factors.  According to Elliot Richardson, CEO of Chicagoland’s Small Business Advocacy Council, “It depends on what you’re looking for – from education about issues to networking to business development – and your budget.”  

If you choose to join with other small business owners or members of your specific sector or both, it’s important to avoid being what advisors refer to as a “checkbook member.”  In other words, as you make your decision about which to join, look closely at the total investment required by each in terms of time and energy as well as money. Greater involvement almost always means greater benefit.  Find the one – or more than one – that best fits you and your business. That will help ensure the highest return on all those investments.