Business associations are membership organizations engaged in promoting the business interests of their members. These associations typically perform activities that would be unduly costly or time-consuming for an individual company to perform by itself, including lobbying, information gathering, research, and setting industry standards. Association spokespeople contend that by combining their voices under one banner, companies are able to establish a strong and unified presence and effectively protect their shared interests. Leading business associations in the United States include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association, the National Retail Federation, and the National Manufacturers Association, but there are tens of thousands more that operate at local, state, regional, and national levels all over America.
Large firms have long been active participants in business associations, using the organization to advance their goals in a wide range of areas, from regulatory issues to research to industry image improvement. But smaller companies can benefit from association memberships as well, provided they find an organization that adequately reflects their priorities and needs, which may be dramatically different from those of big corporations. For example, a small business owner may value an association that provides education, peer contact, and networking opportunities more than one that is focusing its resources on eliminating an OSHA regulation that pertains primarily to large companies.
Before entrepreneurs and small business owners begin shopping around for an association, thugh, they should first compile a chart of specific business and personal goals, as well as a list of talents that they have that would be welcomed by an association. "All too often," explained Robert Davis in Black Enterprise, "contact-hungry entrepreneurs and professionals join networking organizations before investigating them thoroughly. Does this sound familiar? You hastily join an organization, only to discover later that it's disorganized, poorly attended and moreover, doesn't meet your needs."
In order to avoid such a scenario, small business owners should undertake a serious information-gathering effort before committing to an association. People considering an association should first request a brochure or information packet on the group that adequately covers its background, philosophy, structure, services, and affiliations, then request a meeting with an association representative or attend an organization meeting or event to get more detailed information. Current and former members of the association under consideration are also potentially valuable sources of information. "Ask them about the level of commitment needed for worthwhile membership," said Davis. "Also ask them to compare the benefits they have received from this organization with benefits received from other groups."
Associations can be a positive force for a small business, but all associations are not created equal. Some are poorly organized, poorly attended, and offer little benefit to ambitious entrepreneurs. Moreover, some entrepreneurs, already struggling to find time to attend to both business and family needs, are simply unable to invest the necessary time to make association membership worthwhile for them or their company.