Vibrant business membership organisations: The Briarpatch Network

Back in the late 1980s I had the pleasure of working with Roger Pritchard who was visiting Australia from San Francisco where he lived and worked. Roger is a business consultant who spoke eloquently about ethical business and the pursuit of businesses that reflect ones own interests and vocation. He was also a Bay Area coordinator for The Briarpatch Network, a business membership organisations founded by Michael Phillips, among others. Phillips is the author of a number of books on ethical business. 

The following is from a brief on the history of the Briarpatch:

The Briarpatch was founded in June of 1974 a few weeks after Michael Phillips opened an office on San Francisco’s Pier 40 for Wednesday free business consulting. Within two weeks, such a large number of hippies was coming to the office for advice on new and existing businesses that he asked five friends to join him in coping with the explosion of incipient businesses. Later, Andy (Bahauddin) Alpine became the first Briarpatch coordinator. Everyone agreed to contribute to Andy’s first six months’ expenses to help the Briarpatch businesses until there were sufficient funds to cover his living costs. That took less than six months and $600…

From 1981 until 1986 a business school was affiliated with the Briarpatch. The Noren Institute (“Hands-on Business Learning”) included mostly Briarpatch members as students and teachers. Classes were taught by taking students, in a van, to study exemplar Briarpatch businesses. Noren had approximately 400 students over its five year life. ‘Marketing Without Advertising’ and ‘Running a One Person Business’ were among the classes offered by Noren. The classes were the source material for two books with the same titles.

The Briarpatch was somewhat unique in the way it engaged its members. It did not adopt the formal mannerisms of many business organisations. Instead of the typical monthly business lunch, Briarpatch held BBQs and parties, new members visited other members at their business premises on Saturday mornings, and informal advisory and teaching sessions were run for interested members.

It seems that the Briarpatch never successfully grew anywhere outside the Bay Area, although efforts were made in numerous places. Maybe this was simply an organisation that reflected the San Francisco sub-culture at the time. Good organisations tend to be those that respond to a defined need in a credible way. Often, these needs are best defined within a local community. Many peak and national business membership organisations struggle to remain closely connected to their members and this undermines their credibility and, ultimately, their sustainability.

The Briarpatch provides a good lesson on the need for rethinking how business membership organisations should work. How do they meet a local need? How can they reflect the practical needs and aspirations of local businesspeople? How can they become more than a overly-formalised cliche of businessmen?

I’m keen to collect examples of business membership organisations that are doing things differently. Please share any examples you know of.