Attracting New Members During COVID-19: Lessons Learned from AmCham Uzbekistan

03.30.2021 | Articles | Tatyana Bystrushkina, Kalea Power

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the for-profit and non-profit sectors in Uzbekistan. In the year that brought immense financial strain and a shift in priorities to businesses all over the world, many business member organizations (BMOs) and business associations (BAs) struggled to retain membership, collect dues, and continue to provide value for members throughout 2020.

The American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Uzbekistan was no exception and spent much of last year looking for ways to improve its membership development strategy. The AmCham focuses on three areas:

  • B2G: Business to Government – driving actionable dialogue with the Government of Uzbekistan in many areas including improvement of the business and investment climate in the country.
  • B2B: Business to Business – creating opportunities for cooperation between the members, including networking and business advocacy.
  • B2U: Business to Uzbekistan – promoting Uzbekistan internationally as an attractive business destination.

Unlike many BAs in Central Asia, AmCham Uzbekistan managed not only to retain current membership, but in fact increase its member base in 2020, resulting in a 6% increase in dues collection last year.

What steps did AmCham Uzbekistan take to attract new members and increase its dues-based revenue collection during a global pandemic and financial crisis?

Assessing Member Contributions

AmCham Uzbekistan’s strategic approach toward membership dates back to December 2018. While the AmCham boasted 110 members, only 40% of dues were collected that year. The Board of Directors took a closer look at the AmCham’s nine membership categories and found that Silver (14 companies), Gold (19), and Platinum (9) members contributed significantly more in dues than Bronze members (48), many of whom opted out of payment in 2018. Nine Platinum members together contributed more to the AmCham’s annual budget than 48 Bronze members, though each member expected equal levels of service and staff time from the AmCham because their benefits packages included similar offerings. In 2018, members regardless of category could attend the same number of policy dialogue and networking events, committee meetings, and other activities. With no clearly marketed value-add of higher membership categories, there was no incentive for businesses to become more involved in the AmCham and make more significant contributions to its development.

Assessing Member Needs

To develop more targeted benefits of each membership category to potential members, AmCham Uzbekistan first sought to identify the services that were in demand across the Uzbek private sector. Via a needs assessment conducted in 2019, the AmCham Board of Directors (BOD) found that businesses of different sizes found value in different services.

Unlike many business associations in Central Asia, AmCham Uzbekistan managed not only to retain current membership, but in fact increase its member base in 2020, resulting in a 6% increase in dues collection last year.

For example, companies that joined the AmCham as Platinum members, usually more established companies, looked for opportunities to participate in advocacy with the government via monthly policy dialogues and advocate for business-enabling legislation. Smaller companies that often joined as Bronze or Silver members, on the other hand, valued networking opportunities such as business mixers. These events, which members often sponsored, served as platforms to promote their services, expand their networks, and build relationships with larger member companies’ representatives, with the aim of supplying their goods and services.

Communicating Value to Members

  • Added voting/non-voting rights for Platinum/Gold and Silver/Bronze members, respectively. Voting members can vote at the Annual General Assembly for changes in the association’s internal policy, elect or apply to join the Board of Directors (BOD), and chair one of the issue-focused AmCham Committees in advocacy efforts. Voting members can attend select events, such as luncheons with the U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan, visiting delegations, international financial institutions, and policy dialogues with Uzbek state ministries, while non-voting members can attend a certain number of events each year. This gradation encourages greater involvement in the association.
  • Introduced new services, including advertisements in its weekly e-newsletter, website, publications, and social media per membership categories. More involved members, such as Platinum or Gold, can publish a page of ads for their services at no additional cost in Dynamic Uzbekistan, a widely circulated AmCham magazine published twice a year, and a banner in the weekly e-newsletter. In its needs assessment, AmCham found that all members valued AmCham social media and circulation lists as an avenue to promote their services.
  • Introduced a Non-Resident membership category for companies that do not yet have an official presence in the Uzbek market but are interested in entering.

Advocacy and Policy Dialogue

At the same time, the AmCham enhanced its unique platform for policy dialogue and member advocacy to the government, which is highly valued by voting members. In 2020, AmCham Uzbekistan established the Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) Committee, which has worked closely with the Ministry of Health, Uzstandart Agency (a national body for standardization, metrology, and certification in Uzbekistan), Agency for Ecology, Ministry of Finance, and the Cabinet of Ministries on five policy issues crucial for the FMCG sector.

Representatives of the FMCG, Human Resources (HR), and other AmCham committees were invited to join government-led working groups to draft legislation, showing that the Uzbek government is open to policy dialogue and cooperation with the private sector. In the fall of 2020, the AmCham HR Committee was invited to join the Senate Working Group on Labor in the Oily Majlis (Parliament) and about 30% of the HR Committee’s recommendations were incorporated into the new draft of the Uzbek Labor Code. The committee’s proposed changes to the Code focused on closing legislative loopholes that create opportunities for potential corruption, safeguarding the rights of the Uzbek private sector to contribute to the development of labor legislation, and ensuring equitable employment practices and standards. Such tangible results of the AmCham’s advocacy efforts has attracted new members to the association and contributed to the promotion of Uzbekistan as a more attractive destination for foreign investment due these instances of improved transparency and public-private dialogue.

As a result of these strategies, voting members increased by 32% from 2018 to 2020, demonstrating the demand among Uzbek businesses for services including access to policy dialogue with the government and engaging in advocacy. This resulted in a 15% increase in membership dues in 2019 and another 6% increase in 2020.

Regional AmCham Network

Since 2019, the AmChams in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have participated in CIPE-facilitated roundtable discussions and group capacity-building webinars with CIPE experts on topics including strategic planning, sustainability, member services, advocacy, and policy reform. Thus, in response to AmCham Uzbekistan’s successful year in membership development in 2020, CIPE organized a regional learning event with the Central Asia AmCham network in December 2020, in which Tatyana Bystrushkina, AmCham Uzbekistan Executive Director, shared lessons learned with neighboring AmChams. The associations exchanged best practices of membership attraction and retention and discussed a regional approach to new member services, which they plan to implement in their respective strategies soon.

Executive Director Tatyana Bystrushkina shares membership best practices with AmCham Kyrgyzstan.

Going forward, AmCham Uzbekistan has identified three membership strategy priorities for 2021-2023. CIPE-affiliated association management expert Robert Harris led a session during the AmCham Board of Directors Strategic Planning Retreat in December 2020, where the following goals were developed:

  1. Consolidate and simplify membership categories;
  2. Develop a live database of potential member companies and a plan for targeted outreach to specific sectors, including IT, renewable energy, education, and tourism; and
  3. Effectively market membership benefits and develop new digital services, such as online events with international speakers.

Now with a new Marketing and Membership Manager on board and dedicated to membership development and continued guidance from CIPE experts, AmCham Uzbekistan is well-positioned to achieve its goals for 2021-2023 and continue to expand its membership to represent more diverse sectors in the Uzbek economy.

Tatyana Bystrushkina is the Executive Director of AmCham Uzbekistan. AmCham Uzbekistan unites more than 110 companies from Uzbekistan, the U.S., Europe, and Southeast Asia.

Kalea Power is a Program Associate for Central Asia at the Center for International Private Enterprise.