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Merging With Other Community Organizations to Provide More Value

Bismarck, ND


[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 

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern] Hey there, welcome to another episode of chats with chambers. And today I am joined by Brian Ritter from the Bismarck, North Dakota Chamber of Commerce. Brian, thanks so much for joining me today.

[Brian Ritter]   Oh, this is fantastic. I appreciate the opportunity.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern] This is gonna be super fun before we kind of jump into all the amazing things that your chamber does. Why don’t you share a little bit about Bismarck kind of what are the businesses like there and kind of what are you known for?

[Brian Ritter]  Absolutely. So up here in Bismarck Mandan, North Dakota were a metro area of about 130,000 people. I think sometimes it surprises people to realize that our Metro is actually that big. Because we’re realists, right? We know that the perception from a lot of the country is that Bismarck Mandan and North Dakota in general is kind of flyover country. That’s okay. We are a growing thriving community. We’ve got an incredibly diverse economy right now we of course, are the state capitol, we’ve got two large healthcare systems I call Bismarck Vandana home, we’ve got a thriving growing education system that includes not only k 12. But three colleges. In addition to of course, North Dakota is home to a lot of energy production as well, that’s coal, oil and gas, wind. And so that diversity truly has kept Bismarck Mandan, growing, thriving, in order at a time when a lot of other places just aren’t as fortunate.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern]  Yeah, that’s great. I have been to Bismarck before I went to college. I’m sure it’s changed a lot since then. But I love to hear that that’s so great. Because I think that’s, that’s true that we there’s all these little gems and all the different places of the world that we don’t even think about. So that’s awesome.

[Brian Ritter]  Awesome. And we. And of course, that’s part of the beauty of betta chamber, right is that you get to tell your story. And for someone like me, who was born and raised here, and has chosen to raise my family here. It’s personal, right? And I think that’s what probably makes a lot of professionals in the industry. Do what we do is you genuinely care about your community, the people there?

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern]  Well, then this might be a hard question for you since you’ve been around the chamber in your area for a while. But is there kind of one big win or one project or campaign that you’re super proud of that you’ve been able to accomplish with your time at the chamber?

[Brian Ritter]  Absolutely. And so one of the background on organization, we’re actually a merged organization, we’re actually emerged chambers. And what I mean by that is back in 2018, we merged our chamber of commerce with our economic development corporation. And I know that’s happening throughout the industry. And we’re seeing that more and more across the country. But in that time, truly, that has probably been our greatest success, the fact that we were able to successfully merge two separate organizations, bring together two separate teams, and bring more value to the community in the sense that, since the merger, we’ve seen our membership grow. We’ve seen our events grow, we’ve seen our profile grow, we sent our revenues grow, every single indicator that we have this organization as the community has gone forward, as advanced has gone up over the last five years.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern]  And do you think part of that is when you have the goals of economic development merged with the goals of the existing business community, it just kind of is a win win scenario?

[Brian Ritter]  Absolutely the value proposition we always sort of bring back to our membership. And when you look at our membership, right now, we’ve got a board over 1200 members, which for a market our size, I think, is pretty good. But less than more than 70% of those members have less than 20 employees. So we are truly built on small businesses. And so to tell them that not only are we advocating on your behalf, not only we’re your voice with local, state and federal government, we’re also the ones trying to keep this community growing, to hopefully keep customers coming through your doors. And so at a time when chambers like ours are forced to better explain and have a more concrete value proposition. That has been a really effective argument for us.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern]  So and I’m gonna throw this out there putting us by a little bit but man, we have a lot of chambers that we talk to that are small shops, so they have merged with their CVB or their economic development not because of the growth opportunities, but because They have one person, right? Who’s running the whole thing. So do you have any tips for those folks on how like how you kind of balance where you kind of place your priorities so that you can make sure that you know, the the overall growth is happening where it needs to?

[Brian Ritter]  Absolutely, that’s a fantastic question. And to me, it always comes back to the principles of over communication. And I know it’s easy to get lost. And well, we have to post something on Facebook, or an Instagram or Twitter today. Or it’s easy to say we have to send out a newsletter. For us, it really has been pick one thing, pick one message and focus on that message. Because whether it’s advocacy, or whether it’s economic development, your members want to know what you’re doing. They want to know that their their dollar is going to something that’s making a difference. So pick what that is frame the message, pick and choose that narrative, and then focus on the narrative. Because having one thing in our experience has been much more effective than trying to focus on a mixer we have the other night and event we have coming up tomorrow, and immediately have a governor yesterday, pick that one thing, frame the conversation, choose your narrative.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern] That is such good advice. And as a digital marketer, makes me very happy to hear hear you say that, because I couldn’t agree anymore.

[Brian Ritter]  It wasn’t employed to understand me. So

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern] I love it. Okay, so you know, as you’ve grown, and you it sounds like you guys have had a lot of change, what’s something that you have been struggling with within your chamber and kind of what are you doing to work through that?

[Brian Ritter]  So the single greatest challenge facing our economy, and I think a lot of listeners, honestly, is workforce, right? Whether you’re a Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corporation or emerged organization like ours, labor is impacted members of all sizes of communities of all sizes, regions of all sizes. And so what’s been a struggle for us has really been to quantify a workforce development strategy, because workforce development such a nebulous term, right, it’s, it’s tough to quantify because workforce development to me could mean something, it could be something totally different to you. And for us, what we’ve tried to do is be very linear in the sense that way in the sense that we’ve tried to lay out workforce development strategies at the middle school level, at the high school level, at college. And then partnering with our young professional network, I mean, for that post college experience, so that we can weigh out in a very black and white linear fashion for our members that says, our whole aim and workforce development is to expose kids of middle school, to all different types of career opportunities. Then when they get into high school, we have a job shadow program, which we facilitate. And we want to take that interest that you gained in middle school, and now spend two or four hours in a job shadow learning more about that. Then when you get to college, we have an intern, we’ve created an internship network. And so now you take what you learned in those job shadows. And now you have a four or a six month internship or experiential work opportunity. And we feel that if we can do those two things correctly, then Walt, we will get you to stay here in Bismarck Mandan. So we’ve tried to take a very nebulous term, make it very black and white and communicate that to membership. That’s been our biggest struggle.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern]  That seems really smart, too, because you’re building a long term sustainable strategy that will help over time, which also continues to feed your economy, right. If you can keep people staying in college, in Bismarck Mandan, and then if they can then take everything they’ve learned in stay like, you’re kind of really that investment helps full circle with everything.

[Brian Ritter]  Well, I think it surprises people to know that North Dakota is actually one of the youngest states in the country now. I mean, as a result of the population change our state’s so one of the youngest in the country. In addition, if you look at good I mentioned our metro areas, about 130,000 people. We’ve got about 17,000 students that are in our pre K through 12. Systems right now. We’ve got another 8000 in between our three colleges. And so, yes, sometimes it’s more difficult to attract new talent to a place like Bismarck Mandan. So let’s keep trying to do that. But let’s focus our efforts more on the talent that’s already here, and do a better job of keeping them here, because they’ve already got the background and the experience, they know how cold winter gets here in Bismarck. Right? We don’t have to put that in the brochure. But you know, if we can do that effectively, then again, we’re delivering real value back to our membership, which hopefully keeps your position growing in the long term.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern]  Well, I’m going back to the old business principle of it’s always cheaper to retain your existing customers than it is to bring in a new one. So

[Brian Ritter]  no better advice. Yep.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern]  Okay, so what kind of what tip would you share? You know, what’s kind of one lesson that you’ve learned as a chamber leader, that maybe you wish you had learned earlier? Or somebody had told you that you can impart your wisdom on other chamber leaders that are listening

[Brian Ritter]  Call someone every single day, call a member every single day buy lunch for someone every single day. Because one of the challenges that we found was that organizations like ours and specifically the Bismarck Mandan chamber EDC, we had developed some somewhat of reputation as we’re only calling when we want money. I mean, we’re almost like fundraisers, whatever people see chamberings, even the caller ID, what, what do they need? They’re just asking for money, right? I think that’s something that we all deal with on some level, in this field. And so we started to do here in this office. And so we’ve got 13 staff, we’re a big shop, we have 13 staff. Every single week, everyone on that on our staff, including myself is responsible for calling to members proactively, just to check in, say, thank you for being a member, and then find out how we can help you know, ask no solicitation, nothing like that. Just true member appreciation. And I can tell you, we’ve seen that quantifiably increase our membership retention rate to last year, somewhere between 93 and 94%. Wow, we set we set a record for new membership last year. And we saw our membership retention, right, like I said, go between 93 94%. Because of that one piece of advice, call someone, someone wants to take him to coffee, do whatever it is, but just make it about the relationship. And with 365 days a year, you could develop a lot of relationships.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern]  That’s really great. That’s a really great tip. And it’s so easy to do. It is. So I love when it’s not like some crazy strategy. And do you find that as your retention rate has grown? That referrals from your members to like, does that then are like they helping you bring in new businesses?

[Brian Ritter]  Got another one this morning? Yeah, we had a we had an architect member of ours, who’s doing some work with us. And they said, Hey, I got your new member yesterday. And so you know, How great does that feel right as a professional to hear that your members are doing that? That business doesn’t work for you? So long answer to a short question. But yes, we have absolutely seen that helped turn more of our members into our ambassadors.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern]  That’s so great. Well, Brian, lots of good tips in this episode for sure. If people want to know more about your chamber, get in touch with you. If they’re listening to this, they happen to be moving to the area or just kind of want to know more about it. How do they find out about all the things?

[Brian Ritter]  Absolutely. So just go online, like like everyone says right, go to our website at Bismarck Mandana, calm, very simple. Bismarck We have tried to make our staff page very engaging. And so you’ll find my personal contact info info there, along with that of all of our team, and do not ever hesitate to reach out to us because we always want to make sure we’re helping the industry as well.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern]  That’s so great. And we’ll have all of those linked up in the show notes at nonprofit boot camp online, forward slash podcast so you can check everything out there. Brian has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us today.

[Brian Ritter]   I always enjoy talking about the community organization so big.

[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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Bismarck – Mandan, North Dakota is a metro area of about 130,000 people. They have a diverse economy and are the state capital. Their economy includes 3 colleges, energy production, 3 hospitals, and helps keep the area growing and thriving.

The chamber merged back in 2019 with their economic development group. That has been their greatest success. It has allowed them to bring more value to the area. Their events, membership, revenues and more have all increased. They have about 1,200 members currently. More than 70% have less than 20 employees. That means they can provide more value with this partnership to help bring more traffic to these smaller businesses.

If you’re merged with other community organizations, Brian suggests picking one thing and doubling down on that if you’re having a hard time figuring out what to do with a small team.

Their biggest challenge is workforce. Labor is a big issue for businesses of all sizes. They are working to quantify a workforce development strategy. They are working at a liner level. They have programs that are starting at elementary school and supporting people all the way through college to help develop career opportunities and keep grads in the area.

Brian’s tip is to call someone every single day, buy lunch for someone every single day. We tend to only call when we need money. They have 13 staff. Every week each person is responsible for calling 2 members to say thank you and find out how you can support them. Their retention rate is now at 93-94%!

Questions We Asked

  • What is the Bismark Mandan Chamber all about? [1:10]
  • What are some wins? [2:47]
  • What are challenges you face? [6:28]
  • What is your tip and trick to pass on to other chambers? [9:45]
  • How can you learn more about Bismarck Mandan? [12:11]
Bismarck Mandan Chamber of Commerce Logo

Brian Ritter

Bismarck Mandan Chamber of Commerce

With more than 1,300 members, the Bismarck Mandan Chamber EDC is one of the most powerful business organizations in the state.
From our involvement on behalf of our members in government affairs to providing networking and educational opportunities, the Chamber EDC exists to serve the interests and needs of our business members in Bismarck-Mandan.

Learn more at: 

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