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Handshakes Not Handouts to Build Relationships

Columbus, NE

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[Intro] Welcome to chats with chambers with your hosts Patrick Kirby and Sami Bedell-Mulhern. Each week we connect and learn from executives of chambers of commerce from across the country. These short episodes will share success stories, challenges, best practices, and tips and tricks to inspire you, and provide resources for hitting your organizational goals. From recruiting new and retaining current members to finding new and creative revenue sources. You’ll hear straight from those leading chambers and communities throughout the US. Chats with chambers is proudly brought to you by the Nonprofit bootcamp. Learn more and check out the show notes for episodes at 

[Patrick Kirby] Hey, everybody, welcome to chats with chambers, one of my favorite things to do is learn a little bit about a new Chamber of Commerce, I didn’t really know about a lot of I bet you will enjoy this as well, especially the tips and tricks that folks are doing across the country that you might not be doing that you might be able to pick up and use for your own chamber and your own leadership skills. It’s the best. It’s the best podcast ever. I’m very excited to welcome our guests today. Dawson Bruns, he is the president of the Columbus area Chamber of Commerce. Dawson, welcome to chat with chambers. How are you?

[Dawson Brunswick] Patrick! I am fantastic. I, I really appreciate you reaching out to me. And let me be a part of this and hopefully get to share some new perspective to you and all the listeners out there and just have a good conversation on how chambers are awesome.

[Patrick Kirby] Yeah, that is a fact. I love that, first of all, and then I love that maybe somebody is tuning in on iTunes, or they’re looking at this on YouTube. And they’re like, hey, this sounds great. I’d like to know something more about Columbus. And they might not know a lot about it. So doesn’t brag a little bit about who you serve, and the area in which you are the chamber.

[Dawson Brunswick]  So we are in Columbus, Nebraska, not Columbus, Ohio, we do have occasionally, you know, being a membership organization, we’ll have a membership requests come in from a business in Columbus, Ohio. But we are not coming to Ohio. We actually back in the 1800s. When the people that moved to Columbus to form Columbus, they did come from Columbus, Ohio, and chose our location based off of the transcontinental railroad. And just they felt that this area was going to be ripe for growth and development. And since the 1920s, on the chamber has formed, the Chamber has been a major component of that, from helping attract industry to helping form a local community college that is still with us today. To all the different things that the Chamber has been involved with in serving our members. You know, we’re a community of 24,000, we have close to 800 members, which is a pretty substantial ratio for chambers and very blessed to be supported by the community. And they’ve been with us since 1923. So next year will actually be 100 years for the chamber of serving the business and just the community as a whole.

[Patrick Kirby] I love it. All right, tell me something that Columbus, Nebraska is known for a fun fact that I wouldn’t know, that had been a lot of other people wouldn’t know.

[Dawson Brunswick] So Columbus, Nebraska, I will start with that. We are home to the first industrial site that was ever, like, marketed. So back in the day, we had a great company bale manufacturing, still, to this day, still locally owned, great entrepreneurship story that’s grown into over 1000 employees. And they built out a rail park, you know, being along the Transcontinental Railroad being along the up mainline. And they actually Columbus was what is believed to be the home of the first industrial site, which, you know, we do more manufacturing per capita than anyone else in our Federal Reserve district. So very, very proud of our of our working class. And just all the things that we do just for our major employers and manufacturers.

[Patrick Kirby] Outstanding, my friend. Alright, so time to brag a little bit, because I’d like to hear some things and some outstanding things that that you at the Chamber of Commerce or your business community is doing in the Columbus area?

[Dawson Brunswick] Yeah, so I’ve been here for a year already. And it seems like it was just yesterday. But truly, you know, workforce has been our number one priority. It’s everyone’s number one priority. We’re very fortunate to be in a community that we don’t have a standalone economic development organization, our local power district, Nebraska is all public power. So our local public power district, you know, they invest in economic development, and they invest in us Our largest investor. And because ultimately we have more people, we have more lights on in the house, we have more industry that’s using power and and they love to sell power. So that’s it’s kind of selfish on their part, but, you know, you have to pay your power bill. So you know, it gives the chamber a lot more authority in some areas that, you know, we don’t have the same economic development that’s attracting businesses and attracting workforce that, you know, our power district works with us and we were them to do that. So we are actually the, we have for those that don’t know about Nebraska, we’ve got Lincoln Omaha are two major hubs. And then after that, a handle community. So Columbus is the ninth or 10th largest community in Nebraska. But we’re the fourth largest chamber outside of Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney. But we are actually the only chamber outside Lincoln Omaha that has a full time workforce staff member. So we are we are heavily investing in our talent pipeline.

You know, starting as early as kindergartener kindergarten first grade, getting those students exposed to the different vehicles in our community, you know, vehicle day, trying to get them to the point that they know, different things that are going on earlier in life. And then we hit them again, fourth grade, and then we get them again, in middle school, but just trying to show them all the opportunities that are here. You know, I mentioned we have a lot of manufacturing. But you know, with a lot of manufacturing comes the the accounting in those firms, you know, the legal in those organizations, the marketing, you know, it’s not just line workers. And, you know, manufacturing isn’t dark, dirty and dangerous, like it once was, I mean, it is it’s high skill, high wage jobs, that are in high demand, you know, we can then go make more money than you and I, Patrick, it’s crazy what manufacturers are paying and, and you know, they are fueling our economy. And so, you know, the workforce is really where we’ve been hanging our hat lately on, you know, trying to do more to not only build our local talent pipeline, but we go on recruit, we have more engineers per capita than newer, and stay in Nebraska.

So we’re going to all the different engineering schools and sharing with them how Columbus is something good, and just trying to have that conversation with them and show them that, you know, you can really make your future here. And that’s something that a lot of other chambers have been doing. And I think that’s why it takes so much pride in it, you know, being a younger chamber exec, one of the youngest in the Mid American Chamber exec region, that, you know, our state does a terrible job at attracting 18 to 34 year olds, and having somebody in that age category, I think, really helps kind of shine that light on, can we be doing this better, or we can be doing this better. And that’s something our chamber has done really well as kind of, as the times have changed to adapt with our community, you know, our chamber is still the foundation for collaboration, our community, you know, everybody still sees the chamber as gay in the chambers pulling us together, we need to show up, and when you have this conversation for the future of our community, and just so many good things, and you know, I had that conversation, when they brought me on board that Columbus does really well at collaborating, you know, the Chamber does a great job of pulling those parties together to collaborate. And so between that, and our workforce efforts truly, are what bring us success.

[Patrick Kirby] I love it. I love the angle towards the youth, or at least the youth perspective on how to bring folks and I think that’s a brilliant move. And again, I think, you know, something you learn over 100, some years, almost 100 years as as a chamber member, you know, and if you’ve been around for, you know, you know, a century, there’s probably a couple of challenges that you’ve had even beyond workforce, what’s something that you have encountered over the last year or so that’s been a real challenge for you at the Columbus area Chamber of Commerce.

[Dawson Brunswick] You know, and we say other than workforce, but workforce causes so many issues that a lot of people don’t see, you know, chambers are inherently they’re a nonprofit organization owned by its members. But being owned by the members, it’s a very volunteer driven organization. You know, we have a staff of five, for 800 ish members and a community 24,000 That doesn’t get you very far. It’s all on the volunteers. And as we’ve seen, the workforce struggles and people working more hours are getting shorter lunches, you know, people have less time to volunteer and have less time to themselves, they start to feel that burnout. And that’s where we’ve been very conscious of asking for volunteers on things and making sure that when they are volunteering, that they are enjoying it, that it’s fulfilling for them. Because it’s just just getting people away from their business, just getting engineers away from the manufacturers or the plant managers away from manufacturers. You know, it’s it costs those organizations money, and when they’re already sure, I mean, we’ve got some really great volunteers that some of our major employers that we haven’t seen because they have just had their pencil to the paper work in and doing their work and that’s that’s their day job quite literally. So you know, it’s it’s the people availability and you know, as we have more people retire, you know, we have an influx of retirees are volunteering, but you know, it’s, it’s just a struggle right now to have that buy in. Because, you know, we joke that sometimes people are willing to give time over money or money over time and we don’t have an issue with money right now. When it comes to our investing in the things that are worth investing in. It’s, it’s getting the the human capital into the equation.

[Patrick Kirby] Yeah, it is weird about how that time Time is become more valuable than money. And I don’t know if it’s like a post COVID thing where you just realize your priorities are different, or you’re scrambling to sort of readjust and always on the fly kind of thing. It’s very, very bizarre, what sort of creative ways are you looking at sort of helping bridge that that time gap? Is it? Is it a recruitment for younger volunteers, rather than the retirees that maybe you lean on? Or what what sort of outside of the box things have you been doing to kind of bridge that?

[Dawson Brunswick] Yeah, and that’s where, you know, we don’t have a chamber sponsor, young professionals group. And that’s something that we have worked with a local foundation, our Nebraska Community Foundation, statewide organization, our local Columbus affiliate of that, they’re going to partner with us to provide some grant funds to help start that process. So that’s really exciting. Start building that pipeline, because like I said earlier, you know, we’re building our pipeline through K 12, through our local Central Community College, to your community college campus. And then when we have interns here over the summer, as we’re about to Now, we do different activities with them to integrate them in the community, get them to different entertainment, places, restaurants, build that build that network in that community of interns while they’re here. So just continuing to build that pipeline. And that next step is really that young professionals. Because ultimately, you know, we’re building the pipeline for our employers and our members to get them here and working. But then we’re also selfishly building that pipeline for volunteers, and for involvement and board members, you know, board and committee member development is something that, you know, we had somebody say the other day that they don’t recognize a lot of the faces on our on our board chair anymore. And it’s because of our transition of leadership, we have a lot of newer and younger leaders, emerging leaders in our community that we’re bringing on as board members to have that perspective. And, you know, it’s just it’s that evolving, you know, board and committee development, that you always want to have strong committees and strong boards. And we have, we have a program of work that our state chamber will tell us is a second to none with the amount of work that we do in our community. And it takes all these volunteers.

[Patrick Kirby] What I love about this is that you’ve you’ve you’re living this pipeline, both at sort of the the really small or the young education level, and sort of, you know, getting them exposed to some of the manufacturing and sort of the number of different things that you do, in addition to hey, we’re filling a pipeline full of youth that are seeing the value in the chamber to like, it’s a wonderful book end solution to that volunteer, that leadership issue, that could have been a major crisis that you guys are in the in the throes of solving, which I think is really cool. All right. A lot of people look to other chambers to see what are they doing maybe better than us or different than us that we can kind of take back to our leadership group across the country, right? might be doing something different in California than you do in in New York that you’re doing in Texas, especially probably doing something different in the Columbus area of Nebraska. So Dawson, you got a tip or a trick that some chamber executive as listening to this podcast right now can maybe use at their own chamber, to better their service and their members and everything else go.

[Dawson Brunswick] So, you know, I had mentioned early I’ve been here about a year, I was at a chamber community, a third of the size chamber about a fifth of the size. And I started as the only only employee, so I was a solo chamber Exec. So I identify with that group very well and identify with the group that now has a decent number of staff underneath them. And the thing that holds true from from my hometown chamber that I started out to the chamber I’m at now is that you really need a lead with a handshake and not a handout. You know, when you’re building those relationships that, you know, chambers, you know, in other nations chamber membership is required to do business. And in the United States, it’s not, you know, it’s all about having that relationship and providing value. And, you know, I tell my staff that, you know, we do a lot of different things, we do a lot of community events that make no money. And then we do our workforce efforts that, you know, they they sustain enough revenue, that we have a full time staff member and those areas dedicated there. And that when we’re out making those assets, we’re out, you know, seeing if somebody’s willing to invest in this, that they’re truly investing in it as a partnership. You know, we are asking for a handshake in a business relationship. You know, we’re not asking for a handout to, to say thanks, see, and ever. And truly, it’s about building that relationship showing that those members that you care, and that that investment is going to help them you know, we always say that chambers, you know, it’s what’s in it for me. And at the end of the day, there doesn’t need to be, you know, it may not be for me specifically, but if it impacts the community and benefits the community that will benefit me. It’s how do you tell that story? And that’s where, you know, I came from a chamber that they hadn’t been telling that story well, and I was able to shift the narrative and have that conversation and extend that handshake and not just ask for a handout to make sure that the lights stayed on, you know, asking for that handshake so we can invest in these youth because spoiler people care about kids. And kids, you know, they’re 25% of our population but 100% of our future and that’s, that’s been, you know, my Big Thing. It’s been the handshakes, not handouts, but then also, what are we doing to keep these kids here? What are we doing to bring these kids back. And you know, people will get behind that mission of retaining our youth, you look at youth sports, you look at, you know, the advertisements of your local high school gym, people, people care about kids. And that’s where we’ve seen, you know, we’re expanding more into youth leadership, and youth development. I mean, we’re partnering with our high schools to get in front of the kids more often is where we’ve seen a lot of success, a lot of buy in from our membership. You know, they liked the Columbus days, they liked the red white kaboom firework show that we’re raising money for right now. But you know, where you can really have an impact, you know, because chambers, they do business and community development. And if you really want to impact that business development, it’s it’s working on that future talent pool.

[Patrick Kirby] What I love most about this is that you have taken really one of the great things about nonprofit work, which is thinking about building a better relationship than just what’s in the checking account of the business that you’re that you’re meeting with. And you’re thinking trance formatively, rather than transactionally. And I think that’s such a beautiful thing to get into your brain. So if you’re a chamber, and you’re listening to this, and you’re thinking about I need to grow my membership and just grow, it’s all about money, money, money, money, take some advice from our friend Dawson here, and then that handshake means a heck of a lot more for the long term. Again, he’s talking about a pipeline, folks, this is a roadmap for success that you can take on here. Don said, I’m sold, I listen, I may be in Fargo, North Dakota, but I’m moving to Columbus, but I’m going to need a little bit of help being convinced that last little push to join your chamber. So if you would indulge me, I just moved here, I just met you over coffee, we had a handshake, give me a 32nd pitch on why I should join the Columbus area Chamber of Commerce.

[Dawson Brunswick] So when you join, when you join, invest in the chamber here in Columbus, you are you are actively joining close to 100 of your business, Co Op 100 of your business members and cohorts across the community. And investing in our business and community development for today. And tomorrow. You know, as we talked about our workforce developments are second to none. And it shows that, you know, we are helping Columbus grow at the fastest rate of any community in the state that’s not on the interstate. And by investing in the chamber, you’re opening yourself to a whole new network that, you know, ultimately people like to do business with people they know. And people know other businesses that are in the chamber. And that’s what we do is we help connect our members with others and help build their future pipeline for workforce. Also customers. You know, when we when we attract people here and our businesses grow, that brings more people to town, and that helps benefit our member businesses.

[Patrick Kirby] So when I moved there I’m joining That’s the matter of fact that can’t get any better than that. Super great. Does it thank you so much. First of all, for what you do. You know, it’s so insightful to get perspective like yours. When when you work with chambers and you think about kind of all the ways that you can pitch this. It’s such a unique perspective. It’s such a really wonderful perspective, especially in the workforce development piece. That pipeline thing was brilliant. I love the handshake piece. If you ever get into the Columbus area stop by say hi to Dawson. And thank you sir, for being a guest here on chats with chambers.

[Dawson Brunswick] I still just greatly appreciate it i i still don’t know why you picked me because ultimately end of the day I’m just the janitor around here picking up trash in the parking lot or, or scrubbing toilets. I mean, you know, we just deal with whatever’s thrown our way for our communities. And I think you know, nobody goes to school to be a chamber. When you get into chamber world you learn about Institute and the different opportunities to learn more but no one goes and gets a Bachelors of Arts and chamber management or stuff like that. It’s you happen to run into a one day you’re like I kind of liked that opportunity comes to work there and you take it and you’re like what I get myself into. But ultimately it’s it’s a special thing and I’m glad it found me and anything I can do to help others in the community. I’m happy to

[Patrick Kirby] I love it. See this the humility of servant leadership and again, you’re called to do this kind of work, my friend. Thanks for being a guest chat with you soon.

[Dawson Brunswick] Likewise.

[Closing] Hey, thanks for listening to chats with chambers. For more information about the chamber featured in this episode or to check out show notes for links and resources. Visit nonprofitbootcamponline/podcast. Hey subscribe, give us a five star review if you liked what you heard and if you are a chamber would like to be a guest on this show. Hey, email us Or Links in the show notes


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Columbus, NE is coming up on a big anniversary! 100 years serving the community!!!!

The Columbus area chamber has been focusing on the workforce pipeline. And that doesn’t just mean starting with adults. They have programs that start at kindergarten and works with students as they grow through their education to become leaders and business owners. They pride themselves on collaboration and growth in the community, as well as attracting new younger people to the area.

Columbus struggles with workforce and finding the balance of asking members to volunteer but not ask too much so they don’t burnout people. While they have a great base of retirees they are looking to add a Young Professionals group to also support their chamber. They also utilize interns in the summer.

One of the really unique things Columbus does is building their pipeline to help train and keep people in the area, building their businesses there and long term developing a workforce for existing business. This is a common theme that Columbus weaves into all their programming starting from kindergarten on!

Questions We Asked

  • What is the Columbus, NE Chamber all about? [1:53]
  • What are some wins? [4:14]
  • What are challenges you face? [8:04]
  • What is your tip and trick to pass on to other chambers? [13:04]
  • How can you learn more about Columbus, NE? [16:46]
Dawson Brunswick headshot

Dawson Brunswick

Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce

Dawson serves as President of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, where he leads business, community, and workforce development efforts for the growing Columbus Area. Dawson is the youngest chamber executive in the Midwest and currently serves as Vice President of the Nebraska Chambers Association. Dawson is married to his high school sweetheart Taylor, and the two celebrated their first anniversary this April. Taylor teaches 7th grade math at Columbus Middle School, and their three-year-old German Shepherd DeLuca lays on the couch and watches TV while Dawson and Taylor are at work. Learn more:

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