Overcoming Board Hurdles and Gaining Support for Innovation at Your Chamber

We've all been there. You've meticulously researched a groundbreaking initiative or trend, and have come up with a plan to propel your chamber into the future. But when you present it to the board, you're met with cautious glances and a chorus of "but how?" or "is this really necessary?" or “no one will want that.”

Sound familiar?

It can be frustrating and infuriating when you’re trying to become a Netflix chamber but you’re guided by a Blockbuster board.

What do you do to change minds and influence opinions?

First, what you’re dealing with isn’t much different than what most businesses are going through right now. They’re realizing with costs on the rise that they have to do something to increase their profits (although money may not be the main driver to the change you want, it’s always in the background). But because of an unsteady economy and those rising costs, many people are making decisions from a place of fear.

That’s normal.

Things are uncertain. Life is concerning on so many levels.

For many people—maybe even your board—it doesn’t feel like a good time to try something new.

But if you don’t, you could be facing your own uncertain future.

So how do you make them understand this? In much the same way they might be working through a similar process at their own business.

Micro and Macro Innovation Approaches

When you want to become a more innovative chamber, there are two approaches you’ll want to prepare for—the micro and the macro. Just as in economics, there are micro and macro considerations that can help you succeed in innovation.

Micro Innovation

When you take a micro approach, you’ll focus on the actions and reactions of your individual board members to 1-2 changes. For instance, if you want to propose becoming a small business incubator as an innovative step for your chamber, you’re trying to get board support on that initiative.

You will explain your idea and get buy in from the board on an individual and then collective level.

Macro Innovation

On the other hand, that small business incubator idea, may be one of many you have for the chamber and what you’re really looking to do is create a chamber culture of innovation and ensure that the board supports your larger vision. This is a more macro approach to innovation.

Knowing your goal impacts your approach and focus. In micro innovation, you’ll be influencing individual decisions on one program or service. But ultimately, you may desire a macro approach to innovation creating an entire movement of support to become a leader of innovation in your area—a chamber your businesses can look to as a center of innovation, modeling their own on yours.

Know Your Board

Who is on your board? What business/leadership role do they play? Are they in command of a large business or a small, local establishment? Their background may speak a lot to their aversion to risk. But it may not pan out under stereotypes like that. So knowing the people who comprise your board can help you understand the best way to appeal to their senses.

For instance, you may assume someone working in a large company would be more tolerant of risk. After all, they are playing in the big leagues. But as we found with COVID, smaller businesses are often quicker to pivot because they can. There aren’t thick layers of bureaucracy and protocols in a smaller business as there are in a larger one. Your CEO of a huge manufacturing plant may be less tolerant of risk because it’s been a long time since they managed through one. The business is more established and there are larger layers. Even if they undertook a strategic change, they may have been very removed from the implementation.

Understanding who your board members are outside of the conference room can help you with your approach.

Understanding Boardroom Resistance

Chamber boards are comprised of successful business leaders. Most value stability, risk mitigation, and a clear return on investment.

Their reluctance toward innovation may stem from concerns about:

  • Financial Feasibility: Is this financially sustainable? Will it generate a positive ROI?
  • Member Value: Will the initiative benefit members and address their evolving needs? Just as marketers sometimes confuse their marketing ideas with what appeals to them, not the ideal audience, your board member may be thinking it doesn't appeal to them so it won't appeal to your audience. That is only true when your board member is an example of your ideal member.
  • Resource Allocation: Does the chamber have the staff and expertise to implement this effectively?
  • Unforeseen Consequences: What potential risks or negative impacts could this idea have?​​

Before you do any presenting on your suggestion or the trend you want to implement, be ready to address those common concerns.

Building a Culture of Innovation

So how do you bridge this gap between addressing concerns and becoming receptive to innovative ideas?

Embrace Transparency and Education

Clearly communicate the need for innovation in today's dynamic business landscape. Showcase examples of successful chamber innovation from other organizations. The Chamber Pros Facebook group is a great place to find out what chambers from around the world are doing.

Some of their programs may work in your community or provide the creative jolt you need to come up with your own.

Encourage Board Participation

Involve board members in the brainstorming process. When they feel invested in the solution, they may be more receptive to the idea.

Seek Allies

Seek board members who might be more open to change and build a coalition within the board to champion your initiative.

Start Small, Scale Big

Propose pilot programs or phased approaches to mitigate risk and showcase early successes.

Make Data Your Best Friend

Support your proposals/ideas with thorough data analysis, demonstrating potential benefits and addressing concerns about financial feasibility and member value. Again, show success from other chamber programs using numbers.

Leverage External Validation

Incorporate research and insights from ACCE or other trusted organizations to build a stronger case for innovation.

Championing Creativity within the Board

Building a culture of innovation at the chamber also requires an appreciation for creativity. Innovation by its definition is not formulaic. It takes a creative approach.

You can help nurture a more creative environment by implementing the following:

  • Board Diversity: Advocate for a board with diverse backgrounds and skillsets. Creativity thrives on different perspectives.
  • Term Limits: While all chambers have board terms, some board members seem to keep coming back (or they never leave). Amend your bylaws to ensure board rotation. That will help introduce new ideas and prevent stagnation.
  • Ideas: Foster a culture of open discussion and brainstorming during board meetings. Encourage people to come up with creative ways to meet goals. However, do not encourage them to give you an exact roadmap of all the administrative tasks you should be undertaking. Strategy/goal setting is their lane. Implementation is yours. Don’t let them get into the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day.​​

Move Innovation Beyond the Board Meeting

  • Create Innovation Teams: Build internal committees dedicated to exploring and implementing innovative ideas.
  • Cultivate a Culture of Experimentation: Encourage employees to experiment with new ideas and processes. Reward calculated risks and celebrate successes (even well-intentioned failures if you learned something from them.).
  • Embrace Technology: Explore and implement technology that can streamline tasks, improve communication, and enhance member engagement.​​

Dealing with No

No matter how great the innovation, sometimes overcoming “no” is an insurmountable task. In these cases, you must ask yourself, Is this a no I can live with?

Sometimes, board members say no to things outside of their jurisdiction (like you deciding to implement social media or using AI for content). While they may technically be your boss, and you don’t want to damage that relationship, how you market the chamber (and the tools you choose to use), isn’t their area.

But if you think it’s something worth fighting for and you need board okay, consider:

Refining Your Approach

  • Gather More Data: Strengthen your arguments with additional data that addresses specific board concerns.
  • Reframe Your Pitch: Rephrase your proposal to focus on board priorities like member value, risk mitigation, or financial benefits. Highlight how innovation can address these concerns.
  • Break it Down: If your initial idea feels too large or complex, break it down into smaller, more digestible phases.
  • Educate: Organize a session featuring industry experts or successful chambers using similar innovative practices.
  • Stay Faithful: Innovation takes time. Consider re-presenting your proposal later. Sometimes people need to sit with an idea before they can embrace it.
  • Focus on Progress: Even small wins are valuable. Celebrate and highlight any successes achieved through innovative initiatives. Demonstrate the positive impact.
  • Know When to Walk Away: If the board remains firmly opposed and there's no room for constructive dialogue, it might be time to set your proposal aside for now. Focus your efforts on building a stronger case for future endeavors.​ or find a different way to introduce innovation to your group.

Remember, building trust and open communication with the board is crucial for promoting a culture of innovation. Sometimes, a well-timed retreat and a strategic re-approach can lead to greater success down the line.

Innovation isn't about reckless change for change's sake. It's about calculated evolution and meeting the future needs of your members and community before others do.

By understanding board concerns, framing your proposals strategically, and fostering a culture of creativity within your organization, you can turn your chamber into a hub for innovative ideas.

Remind your board that even the most well-established organizations need to adapt and evolve to thrive. If they don’t believe you, there are plenty of reminders in the history books.


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