Complaint Review: Business Networking International (BNI) - Charlotte NC
Business Networking International (BNI) Kept $465 1 month after renewal when I needed to leave due to trauma Charlotte NC
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Is BNI Truly Supportive of Small Businesses, Especially Women-Owned Business?
Marie LaBreche is an experienced hairstylist who runs her own business. As a solo business owner, Marie knows it’s up to her to run her business, market her services and fulfill her services. To help get the word out about her business, Marie joined Business Networking International (BNI) in 2011.
BNI is a worldwide referral-based networking organization. According to BNI USA’s website, it offers a “structured networking system for giving and receiving business referrals.” This structured system includes regional groups and local chapters.
Joining BNI is no small matter. To join a chapter of BNI, you must:
• Submit an application and agree to a 1-year or 2-year term.
• Be sponsored by a current BNI member.
• Pay a fee of $150 when you apply.
• Pay your annual dues, which depend on length of commitment. (At the time Marie joined, annual dues were approximately $410.)
• Provide at least two names to act as character references.
Once you’re admitted to a BNI chapter, you must attend weekly meetings. If you cannot attend a meeting, you are required to find a substitute to attend in your place. Absences are limited and leaves of absence for most any reason are minimal, if available at all.
In addition to attending each week, members must pass referrals constantly. They’re required to attend ongoing training to maintain their membership. Most of these training sessions must be paid out of pocket. Members must also pay weekly or monthly dues to their chapters. These dues vary by chapter. At the end of their term, members must repay their annual dues and get the approval of the membership committee to renew.
This structure appealed to Marie, as it gave her a steady time and location for focused networking and relationship building. She was a continuous member with BNI from 2011 through mid-2016, with two medical leaves of absence for the full-term stillbirth of her daughter, Avery, in 2012 and the birth of her son, Corbin, in 2014. BNI did provide her with certificates of credit for each of those leaves, which she was told she could use to extend her membership.
During this period, Marie also went through a high-conflict divorce. She had to transfer from one chapter to another after her divorce due to her ex not taking care of her children. But she did not let that interfere with her duties to BNI or her chapter members.
Over the years, Marie received enough business from BNI to maintain the time and monetary costs related to her membership. She built several strong relationships with other BNI members, as well, which encouraged her to stay in the organization and continue to renew her membership. But questions began cropping up over the years, such as where did the room due fees go? What were the annual fees for? No one ever clearly communicated what these funds supported.
In June 2016, Marie’s relationship with BNI took a sudden turn when she needed to take another leave of absence. That month, her best friend experienced a stillbirth, which triggered Marie’s post-traumatic stress disorder from her own stillbirth. This was only one month into her renewed annual term.
Marie’s PTSD took her away from both work and BNI. As she was only one month into her BNI membership, she requested leave from the organization and a full refund. In response to her request, she was informed that BNI offered zero refunds with zero exceptions. Instead of a refund, she was given an 11-month credit, which was good for two years. The credit was set to expire on 6/29/2018.
Marie has been receiving counseling and has slowly gotten back to work. Her state of mind and finances, however, did not provide her with the ability to return to BNI regularly. As such, on May 18, 2017, Marie emailed Jeremy Walsh of BNI. She had heard from her BNI contacts that dues were going up.
Jeremy stated again that it was BNI’s policy to offer zero refunds. He told her the certificate of credit was good for 11 months, regardless of the increase in dues.
When June 2018 arrived, Marie knew she was going to lose the money she had paid into BNI if she didn’t rejoin before her credit expired. As a struggling single mother, this was a risk she couldn’t afford to take.
Marie attempted to reenter a new BNI chapter; one that met during school hours. At this time, she was told by a member of that chapter’s Membership Committee, Jackie Nelson, that she would have to submit a new application to the chapter (which comes with another $150 fee) as well as commit to another year’s membership (with a price tag of $445). Nowhere was it written or mentioned that you have to pay more money to use a certificate of credit.
The frustrations these communications raised in Marie were too much for her to handle. As someone still learning to manage her PTSD, the conflict and stress raised by BNI were unwelcomed. It was at this time Marie informed Jackie Nelson that she would not be contacting anyone else at BNI but may instead be contacting a news station to look into BNI’s handling of its members’ fees and dues.
After a couple of days, Ms. Nelson reached back out to Marie with this email message:
Sorry it took me a bit, but I wanted to do some checking. Wow! 11 months of credit is a lot to give up just because of a technical deadline. That shouldn’t happen. I followed up with Shannon [Starry], our regional BNI director, and she said that members are usually given a 2 year deadline to use up their credit, but she has never seen someone turned down for redeeming it. She has seen them come through and still be honored well after the deadline. You should have been given a Certificate of Credit from BNI. We will withdraw your application for now. When you are ready to start up (August or so?), you can turn in your Certificate of Credit and a new application (I can send you a copy so you know what you wrote) and the credit will be honored. If a hairstylist could still apply in the meantime, however we don’t have a lot of them visit, so you might be ok.
She also said you might have to pay the application fee (although she was going to check on it), but for you (a member who left BNI for a while and is returning), there is no requirement to pay for a whole year. You can register for just the 11 months, or whatever your certificate is for. The requirement I was talking about regarding a paid year is only for a current member with a direct transfer – they want to avoid people chapter hopping every few months because that’s not productive for the chapters, or for the member. So, sorry I mis-spoke about that. I am newer to the membership committee and am not versed in all of the requirements, but I verified.
Marie stepped back from these conversations to allow her a break from the strain and stress it was causing. It took her nearly a year to build up the wherewithal to again attempt to recoup her nearly 1-year membership fees. But she knew she couldn’t do this alone due to the poor, callous and misleading communications from BNI up to this point.
In September 2019, Marie hired an attorney to help her craft a formal demand letter to submit to BNI. That letter was finalized and sent to BNI in November 2019. It was addressed to Executive Director Tonya Peterson. In the letter, Marie’s attorney demanded a refund of the $445 membership fee.
Not two weeks later, Marie’s attorney received a letter from an attorney on Tonya Peterson’s behalf. It included the following,
“As a goodwill gesture, Ms. LaBreche was offered an 11 -month credit, as you mentioned in your letter. She was not, however, asked to pay any additional money in order to use that credit. Your allegation that she was told to pay a $150.00 fee and an additional membership fee in the amount of $445.00 is simply not true. There were no strings attached to the credit, and Ms. LaBreche was free to use it.
Ms. Peterson understands that Ms. LaBreche has gone through a difficult time, However, her threat of libel and defamation cannot be tolerated. As mentioned above, Ms. LaBreche was told that she would need to pay additional fees in order to use the credit. I have reviewed numerous emails between the parties, and it is apparent to me that Ms. LaBreche was treated with compassion and respect.”
Not only has Marie not received a refund, but she’s also been threatened with a libel and defamation lawsuit if she takes her story public. It comes as no surprise that Marie has not chosen to rejoin BNI to use her credit, as she no longer feels welcome or supported.
As terrible and unsettling as this experience has been, what’s even worse is that Marie’s situation is not uncommon. Marie has spoken with other fellow BNI members and has learned that BNI has treated other women going through fertility, maternity and related medical matters with a cold shoulder. How many others are out there like Marie and her colleagues?
Now, what Marie desires more than anything is for future women business owners to not experience what she experienced. She also wants BNI to publicly and transparently communicate where all the members’ dues and fees go. For a worldwide organization like BNI to withhold such information is unacceptable.
If this is a story you’d like to dig deeper into, you are encouraged to reach out to Marie directly:
This report was posted on Ripoff Report on 06/24/2020 07:14 PM and is a permanent record located here: https://www.ripoffreport.com/report/business-networking-bni/charlotte-nc-kept-month-after-1496765. The posting time indicated is Arizona local time. Arizona does not observe daylight savings so the post time may be Mountain or Pacific depending on the time of year. Ripoff Report has an exclusive license to this report. It may not be copied without the written permission of Ripoff Report. READ: Foreign websites steal our content
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