Business Network International, or BNI, claims to be the largest business networking organization in the world. It has over 5,300 chapters in 40 countries and generated over $6 billion last year for its members.
Some people have accused BNI of being a scam or a fraud, promising benefits that it does not deliver and charging members extortionate amounts of money. As with all organizations that do not offer a tangible product, BNI can look like an system for making money from its members and it has been accused of being a multi-level marketing operation.
BNI is aimed at local business leaders, who meet weekly to be energized by a motivational speaker and swap information about their own businesses. They are encouraged to refer business opportunities to one another, and the number of referrals and their value are recorded. That's how BNI knows how much business its members have generated.
Members have the pay an annual subscription fee. The cost of joining one of the UK chapters is 100 GBP (around $150), with an on-going charge of 400 GBP per year ($600). The actual cost to the member can be double that as they also have to pay for a weekly breakfast. Compared with other networking events this is expensive and it is no surprise that members who feel they have not had a return on their investment feel cheated.
BNI also has strict rules of membership, which run the risk of making look like some sort of secret society to those on the outside. Only one professional per speciality is allowed to join each chapter. Membership is by application and must be approved by the board of the chapter. There are strict rules of attendance at the weekly meetings - a member must attend the full 90 minutes of a meeting and is only permitted to miss three meetings every six months.
It's possible that the BNI rules vary from chapter to chapter, and by country. The rules published for the New York chapter are much stricter than those of a chapter based in the UK. The information is readily available on the internet.
The accusation sometimes levelled against BNI is that it is a multi-level marketing (MLM) or pyramid scheme, with subscriptions from new members being paid up through the levels of the organisation. An MLM which is designed to scam people has no beneficial product, and relies on new member fees to generate income for those higher up the chain. Eventually it collapses when those at the bottom realise what's going on because they are seeing no benefit themselves.
BNI has been around since 1985 and is recognised as a legitimate business operation, and it is delivering financial benefits to a huge number of members. While not everyone who joins BNI finds that it works for them, this does not discredit the organization as a whole, and there are many more who will confirm that membership has indeed helped to bring business their way.