Should I Join a BNI Chapter?

I’m a guy who’s into networking, meeting other business people, and making relationships, and doing business. So, naturally, when I found out about BNI (Business Network International), I was absolutely hooked. I took a membership application home with me the first day, and brought it back the next week with my payment. I didn’t know much about it, or how the meetings worked, but I loved that I found a group dedicated to meeting every week and passing business back and forth.

Eventually, I became more and more involved with the chapter I was a part of, and joined the membership committee, then was was nominated for Chapter Vice President and did that for about a year, finally becoming a BNI Ambassador right before I dropped out. You could say I was crazy about BNI, and it was true—I loved it. I was a member for just over two years, and found it to be a valuable addition to my professional life. In the second year, I made over 70% of my annual income through referrals from my BNI Chapter. …and that is money talking.

Since that time, and since I’m not a member any more, I’ll occasionally talk with people who are thinking about joining a BNI chapter, and aren’t sure whether it’s a good fit for them or not. So here is my humble and honest recollection of my experience as a BNI member. In case you haven’t heard of BNI before and aren’t sure what I’m talking about, here’s a super-quick explanation of what BNI is: a membership organization where independent business people join the group and come to weekly meetings for the purpose of passing business referrals to each other. Pretty simple, right? It really is, at least on that level. So if you’re interested in joining, let me explain some quick requirements for membership.

Requirements for joining a BNI chapter:

  • You must work full-time in your position (i.e. no part-time employees allowed)
  • You must commit to showing up to the weekly meetings (there IS an attendance policy)
  • You must be willing to give referrals to other members in the chapter, and follow up on the referrals you receive
  • You can’t be a member of another competing organization
  • Only one person per industry may join a chapter

Still interested? Good! Here are some of the pros and cons of being a member of a BNI chapter.

Pros of being a BNI chapter member:

Joining a BNI chapter is an excellent way to get to know lots of business people very quickly. If you’re new to the town you live in, or just aren’t well-connected, joining a BNI Chapter is the fastest way I know of for meeting people and becoming known. It’s structured in such a way that you are required to meet with the other chapter members during the week and get to know their business, as well as talk about your own business. This was one of my favorite aspects of being a BNI Member. It ensures that you get to learn all about the other members, and they get to know all about you.

Established BNI Members are generally trustworthy. While it’s not impossible to get burned by a BNI member, the system is structured so that there’s a LOT of accountability and transparency. If you purchase a product or service from a BNI member and he screws up, you can bet the rest of the chapter is going to find out. So he has an incentive to make things right to protect his reputation. This is good. As I said, this isn’t always foolproof—and the people who most often break this rule are the new members who haven’t already built up their reputation. But if you’re looking for a network of people in all kinds of industries who you have a good chance of being able to trust, BNI is for you.

BNI is extremely structured. Something you’ll learn at “leadership training,” (which is, incidentally, mandatory), is that BNI has a strictly-enforced structure and process for everything. There are two mandatory meetings each year you’ll need to go to: Member Success Program (MSP), and Leadership Training (LT). This is where you learn alllllll the rules, and there are lots of them! What I learned to appreciate about their structure is that it makes it very easy for each member to know what is required of them at all times, and if you take advantage of the system, there’s a lot of support in place.

BNI charges for membership. Why is this in the “pros” list? It is a good thing, in my opinion, because it keeps flakes from joining. You know the type… they show up for one meeting, get everything they can for free, talk loudly about all their products and services, and never come back. Personally, I wasn’t interested in doing business with people who couldn’t afford to take their business serious enough to commit to joining a group (instead of just trying to sell to people they didn’t know). There are lots of other free groups all over town that start up and shut down frequently due to non-committal people like that, and that’s OK for them, but BNI chapters are in it for the long run. And the dues you pay cover the charges for the paperwork and the corporate structure that keeps it afloat.

Attendance is required. Why is this a good thing? For the same reason as above. People who can commit to show up every week are proving themselves to be dependable, generally trustworthy people. If they can’t commit to coming each week, that’s fine, but again, there are other groups for that. I liked the attendance requirement—it meant my willingness to get up early every Thursday at 6:00am to get ready for my BNI chapter meeting meant that others were doing the same. I appreciated that.

It’s not a “leads group.” I’ve already mentioned the free BNI clones that have no attendance policy, but something you should also be aware of is that some of these groups meet for the purpose of passing “leads,” qualified or not. There’s a least one group in my town that has a policy of requiring every person to bring one lead each week. That, to me, is ridiculously arbitrary and pushy. I would never have been able to join a group like that—I hate playing “business card poker”—tossing business cards on the table to whomever wants to pick them up—and I’m very protective of my business relationships. I’m not about to hand out my friend’s business card to someone I don’t know and say “Here you go, this is John’s card. Give him a call. I have no idea if he wants your products or services, but drop my name and that should get you somewhere.” I’m not a used car salesman—I only do business with people I know and trust. And that’s the BNI model, and I was always a BIG fan of that.

BNI has disciplinary policies in place. If a member starts doing a poor job taking care of referrals, or is being unethical, there’s a membership committee ready to handle complaints, and they have a clearly-defined process for conflict management. Generally, it works pretty well, and unethical members “graduate” themselves (our secret word for “get kicked out”) from the chapter eventually.

You can make long-lasting relationships in BNI. Because, as I’ve mentioned, there’s a membership fee, an application process, and an attendance requirement, the people who are in BNI chapters generally stay for a long time—several years or more. Because of this, and because you see each other every single week, it’s easy to get to know people. For example, I haven’t been in a BNI chapter for over three years, and there are people I met in my chapter that I still keep in touch with and do business with regularly. Yes, you can make relationships in other groups, but I really think BNI does the most to nurture these kinds of relationships.

They only allow one person per business category in the group. This is a mixed blessing, and some people love it and some people hate it. This means if a chapter already has a roofer, and a visitor shows up who also has a roofing business, he’s welcome to stay for the meeting, but he can’t join the group, and he can’t advertise his business either. This gives a form of protection to the existing roofer and keeps the chapter captive—which is something your roofer should guard jealously. People join BNI to get referrals from people, and by spending their time and money in the chapter, they’ve earned the right to be at the top of the list. And if you think this sounds unfair to the visiting roofer in my example, fear not: a BNI chapter would be very accommodating in helping him find another chapter that needs a roofer.

There IS a chapter for you, at some place and some time. Depending on the city you live in, there may be two, or ten, or fifty BNI chapters near you. They all meet at different locations, on different days of the week, and at different times of day. If you want to meet on the Westside, there’s a chapter for you. If you want to meet at Southgate, there’s a chapter for you. Want a lunch meeting? There are “lunch chapters.” Are you only able to meet on Tuesdays? There are chapters that meet on Tuesdays. Pretty much anyone’s schedule can fit in with some BNI chapter. You’ve just got to find the right one.

It’s a great place to get over your fears. If you need some help with learning how to network professionally, or get up in front of a group and speak, I can’t think of a better organization to join than BNI. You’ll have a chance to work on your skills for meeting new people, scheduling meetings, learning basic conversational skills, and public speaking. And everyone in the group wants you to succeed so it’s a great place to learn and make mistakes in a tolerant environment.

Now, as I said, I spent about two years as a member, so I can also attest to some of the negative aspects of being in a BNI chapter.

Cons of being a BNI chapter member:

One morning per week is totally shot, every single week, all year long. Whatever day your chapter meets, whether it’s lunchtime or breakfast time, you need to clear your calendar for the rest of the year. Plan on not being able to go anywhere else or do anything on that day of the week. When I was a member, we met each Thursday at 7:30am-9:00m. But if I throw in a little networking after the group, and some membership committee items after the meeting (because I was in chapter leadership), I effectively had to block out 7:00-10:00am every single Thursday morning. So any events, meetings or functions that happened to fall on that day and time, would not work for me. That got annoying after a while, having no flexibility. People I knew would invite me to business meetings on Thursday mornings and then roll their eyes and say “oh yeah, wait, you can’t… you have BNI…

Some BNI chapters can be nepotistic or “cliquey.” Notice I said they “can” be. They’re generally very open and welcoming to visitors and new members, but there are definitely some clubs out there that have an unspoken understanding of who’s in charge, who not to piss off, and who you need to impress before you’re able to join the group. Just watch out for these kinds of chapters.

The attendance policy is overly strict. You’re only allowed to miss three meetings in a six month period, which is a total of six meetings per year. That means that except for holidays that chapters may take off depending on the day of the week they meet, you should plan on being there around 46 weeks per year. If you’re taking an extended vacation (say, two or three months) to the Bahamas, you’re going to need to drop out of your chapter because you can’t be gone that long, even if you send a substitute. BNI will only “suspend” a membership by offering you “medical leave,” but that’s only for medical purposes, and it has a maximum of eight weeks and even then you still have to send a substitute. I understand why they do this—they don’t want a chapter’s position held hostage by someone who isn’t there, but it can be really hard to work with if you have a situation that needs time off like this.

The “BNI way” is the “right way,” and there is no other way. The BNI system is set up in such a way to imply that you’ll never be able to do business outside of the BNI way. The unspoken attitude is not just that free leads groups and Chamber After Hours events are different, but that they’re inferior. I’m all about the structure in place, like I’ve said, but I don’t think that the BNI way is “the only way.” There are lots of ways to do business—my business model just happened to jive with the BNI way. I’m sure if you ask a BNI representative, they’d disagree with this point, but you can judge for yourself. As I said, it’s unspoken. It’s an attitude, not something they’d admit officially.

Pressure to perform. There’s often a pressure, whether your chapter has referral requirements or not, to bring a certain amount of qualified referrals every week. When I was a member, I was a small business owner who ran a one-man shop. It was difficult for me to find referrals for the other members of the group, especially because the only people I really knew in business when I first got started were already in BNI(!). So in a way, it felt like I joined BNI so I could give and get referrals, but then I had to go join other groups elsewhere to try to bring referrals into the group. This was a bit of a surprise, and seemed backwards: I joined BNI to get referrals, not so I could go find other groups to join to find them for other people!

The pressure to produce can be so strong, sometimes, that you may find yourself making up referrals on the spot to try to keep up. (Example: you know that your roof is probably OK, but you pass a referral to the roofer in your group to come take a look at your roof, just so you can “have a referral.” I saw this happen numerous times, and this happened especially with the Multi-Level Marketing people—someone would make up a referral for the Mary Kay lady because they knew they could spend a minimum amount ($20 or $30) and still get kudos for passing a referral.) There is definitely “credit” earned for referrals given, and everybody knows exactly how many referrals each members have passed—it’s in the report that everyone gets. …which brings my to my next point:

Your performance is measured. Everything you do in the group is measured. The Vice President keeps track of every single time you’ve been absent, every time you’ve been late, every time you’ve sent a substitute, every referral you have passed (or haven’t), every training meeting you’ve been to (or haven’t), every time you have brought a visitor (or haven’t), the dollar amount of the referrals you have passed, and much more. This is not necessarily a bad thing—it’s just something to be aware of. If the chapter sets goals (and each chapter is able to at their discretion), and you fail to meet these goals, actions can be taken against you. These actions are usually very supportive and intended to help you make the most of your membership, but it is something to be aware of. It can definitely feel like you’re back in kindergarten when you get a notice that you’ve had a few “tardys” in the past few months.

It’s expensive. It costs over $500/yr to join a BNI chapter. For me, it made sense, and I certainly made enough return on my investment to justify the cost. But then you’ve also got to think about food (if your chapter meets at a restaurant), or a room rental (if you meet at a rented location), which can run an additional $5-$15/week. So $500 for membership, plus food can cost you around $750-$1,300/year when it’s all said and done. You can control a lot of that cost by choosing your food carefully, but you need to consider this first. And some chapters have a minimum charge whether you eat anything or not. I can’t tell you how many times people forget the cost of the the room rental and the food when joining. Please don’t join a BNI chapter if you can’t afford it.

It’s more of a time commitment than you realize. It’s easy to say that your chapter only meets for 1.5 hours once a week, and that’s true. But you’ve also got the aforementioned Member Success Program and Leadership Training, in addition to the requirement for having “One to Ones”—where you meet the other members for at least an hour outside of the meeting. And if you get involved in the chapter leadership (as you’ll eventually be pressured to do), your total time commitment can be upwards of ten hours a week. For me, it was worth it, because I made tens of thousands of dollars each year, but that definitely takes time. So you’re going to be pouring lots of time into your BNI chapter right after you join, and you may not see a return for several months.

Thinking about joining a BNI chapter? Here’s my advice:

Shop around. I was lucky, I think, that the first chapter I ever visited was the one I joined and that turned out to be ok. But not everyone is that lucky. Sometimes a chapter can appear to be excellent, but after a few visits you start to see the true character. And some chapters will pressure you to join their group without taking a look at the others. Just ignore that and go visit as many as you need to until you find one that fits you well.

Understand that every chapter is different. While the actual meeting agenda is the same for every BNI chapter in the world, don’t assume that the chapter down the street is anything like the one you visited last year on the other side of town. Each chapter has its own culture and flavor. Every chapter meets in a different location, some meet in restaurants, some meet in office buildings around a big round table, some meet at coffee shops, and heck, there are probably even some chapters that even meet outdoors. Some have a very uptight culture filled with people in suits and ties, and some have a blue-collar feel with tradesmen wearing Carhartts and work boots. Some chapters have a great sense of humor and appreciate lots of jokes and jabs, while others are all-business, all the time. I always preferred the chapters that were a mix of both—chapters that were free to joke around and smile, but also got business done. Again, just find one that’s right for you.

Understand that it takes time. BNI likes to use a “farmer vs hunter” analogy: BNI (and networking and building relationships in general) is like farming: you till your soil, plant your seeds, water the seedlings, pull the weeds, and carefully attend to your crop… then when it’s all done, you (hopefully) get a bountiful harvest. That’s what BNI is all about. It’s not like hunting, where you get in your car, drive up to the mountains, pull out your gun, shoot a deer and bring it home. The “hunter” model is extremely short-term, and it’s what people making cold-calls and interrupting you ask you walk past their kiosk at the mall are doing. BNI is more about building relationships that last for years, and I completely agree with this method. It’s a long-term view. You’re putting in time and effort knowing that your efforts might pay off now, or they might pay off sometime in the future. But you HAVE to be patient.

Some people join a chapter and are all excited, but they get about 9 weeks into it and say “screw this—I haven’t gotten any leads. I’m quitting.” This is totally the wrong way to look at it. By joining a BNI chapter, you’re making a lifestyle change. It’s a long term investment. Odds are, unless you run an auto lube shop that offers oil changes for $18, you’re not going to get referrals right away. For example, when I first joined my BNI chapter, I was representing a custom home builder. It took me about a year before I got a solid lead, but when I did, it was excellent: a family with about $800,000 to spend and they were ready to build. My company didn’t close the deal, but that wasn’t the fault of the guy who referred them. The referral was gold, but it took time. I had to invest my time and energy into becoming a productive member of the group first.

Beware the failing chapter. There are some chapters that don’t follow the rules. This is where I remain convinced that the BNI corporate policies are a great asset to the chapters—the chapters that start breaking the rules start to lose members rapidly, and sink so low in membership that the group eventually has to disband. Yes, there’s even an official procedure for dismantling a chapter, and they do a reasonably good job making sure everyone involved finds a new BNI chapter. Just be aware that the group you visit and consider joining may be on it’s way out, and if it is, it’s going to be a heck of a lot more complicated trying to sort that out. Instead, just find a better chapter to start with. To that end, here are some signs of a failing chapter. A failing chapter:

  • Has low membership, especially a chapter that’s been around for a long time yet has few members.
  • Has low attendance by the members.
  • Doesn’t stick to the pre-planned agenda.
  • Doesn’t clearly identify chapter leadership.
  • Has a lack of respect for the BNI rules.
  • Has an informal approach to the application and membership process.
  • Has a lax attitude towards discipline and doesn’t follow through on sending disciplinary letters.
  • Has lazy members who show up late or come unprepared.

All the reasons above are difficult to assess for a first-time visitor, especially someone that hasn’t seen a BNI chapter function properly in the past. So what may make things easier are watching out for the signs for a successful chapter. The successful chapter:

  • Starts on time and ends on time.
  • Eagerly welcomes newcomers, introduces them to the existing members, and makes it abundantly clear that they’re available to answer questions.
  • Has lots of referrals passed during referral time.
  • Announces the amount of business transactions (the “closed business report”) with a high dollar amount. Listen carefully for this part! A large and successful chapter should be passing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars each week.
  • Follows up with visitors.
  • Gives new members the tools needed to succeed.

Overall, please remember that having a BNI membership is not a marketing strategy! Lots of businesses join BNI and that’s all they do to promote their business. This is not a good way to go. It’s just one piece of an overall marketing or sales strategy. If your chapter ever fizzles out for any reason, you’ll have nothing to fall back on. So use it to your advantage, but don’t make it your only plan for getting new business.

So, should I join a BNI Chapter, or not?

In conclusion, I generally DO recommend that small businesses join a BNI chapter if they can. But I think they need to make an informed decision. I don’t think anybody at BNI ever sets out to confuse anyone about the requirements of membership and they’re very clear about membership responsibilities, but I think most people that join don’t have a clear picture of what an active membership looks like. It’s definitely a commitment, and you need to be aware of that. But if you find the right chapter, put in the work it takes, it can be very rewarding.