Professional organizations can help you grow and network. Here’s how to know if one is right for you.
Professional organizations have many potential benefits. Whether organized by industry, group, or region, they can help you connect with other business owners, access ongoing education or industry guidelines, find discounts, and tap into opportunities you might not have on your own.
But not all professional organizations are created equal. They vary in structure, benefits, and fees, to name a few. Ask yourself these questions to assess whether joining a professional group makes sense — and which one is the best choice for you.
1. What type of organization should you join?
Think about the challenges facing your small business and then research what networks exist that might help address them. Namely, consider which type of group — industry, affinity, or regional — makes the most sense based on the challenges you’re facing.
For example, an industry organization may be a good choice if you’re looking for new suppliers. Plus, you might find better prices, new customers, and ongoing education to boot.
Industry groups can also help boost your credibility by offering access to certifications and training. For example, patients might feel more comfortable with an optometrist who’s part of a professional association.
If you’re looking for broad support for either your business or life, an affinity group may be a better choice. For instance, female entrepreneurs looking for ideas to help grow a business while raising a family might join a group for entrepreneur moms.
Finally, regional organizations — say, a local chamber of commerce or a neighborhood association — can help you stay on top of local rules and connect with your community.
If you’re working through multiple challenges as a business owner, consider groups within groups. For instance, your state optometry board may have an organization of female optometrists within it.
2. What professional organizations fit your criteria?
Once you’ve narrowed down your criteria, spend time learning more about the group, the benefits, and the requirements. Look up who founded it, how it’s funded, and prominent members. Consider asking current members how they use the group and what they get out of it.
If you’ve decided that you’d benefit the most from an affinity group and aren’t concerned about location, you have a great base to start your research. For instance, a female entrepreneur might consider the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).
If you’re a female entrepreneur in manufacturing, you might look for subgroups within NAWBO. Or you could look up manufacturing groups in your area, then look to see if there’s a women-only subgroup.
If you’re having a hard time finding groups, consider looking at aggregated lists, like this list from SCORE targeted at women. You can also look to your existing network for tips or connect with business owners facing similar challenges. Or consider starting your own group.
3. How much does it cost?
Professional organizations often charge a membership fee ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per year. Whether these dues are worth it for you financially may be a big part of your decision to join.
To answer that question, start with the money itself. What discounts will you be able to access as a member? Are there perks (like free subscriptions) that can help reduce other costs?
Next, think about some of the “soft” opportunities you might be able to access. These are things that are harder to quantify but will ultimately boost your bottom line: access to potential new clients, webinars and ongoing education, or enhanced publicity, for example.
If the numbers aren’t adding up, explore whether a partial, trial, or discounted membership is available.
4. What will I need to contribute as a member and what will I get out of it?
Consider the norms, requirements, and standards of the group when joining. You might be required to join a certain number of events each year to stay a member in good standing.
Even if there are no minimum requirements, many professional organizations (and many networking experts) advise giving more than you take as the best approach. Do you have time, advice, or other resources to share?
If the answer is no, you might risk disappointing your new network, which might harm your business, rather than help.
Carve out a block of time to check in with the network. Doing this even once a quarter can help remind you why you joined the organization and ensure you take advantage of its benefits.
Professional groups and networks can be a great way to grow your business and connect to other small business owners. Joining, and staying involved afterward, is a good idea as long as the group is helping you achieve your goals. The best groups are those with active, involved members who want to be there and see a clear benefit. And remember, you can always choose to leave or switch to a new group if your needs change over time.