Episode 215: MLMs in BNI

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BNI is not a Multi-Level Marketing organization, but many people in MLMs are BNI members. Members of reputable MLMs are definitely welcome in BNI, as long as they market only the company’s products or services.

One such member recently asked “Why is it that BNI doesn’t allow people in MLM professions the opportunity to share both our products and the business opportunity?”

This guideline was created by BNI members for good reasons. As all BNI members know, there’s only one available membership spot for any given professional classification. If the MLM representative pitches the business opportunity, other members get upset because this eliminates a possible member slot.

On the other hand, if a BNI member wants to mention these opportunities in a one-to-one meeting, that’s a matter for the member’s own judgment. But all BNI members should bear in mind that networking is about farming, not hunting. Don’t push too hard.

Brought to you by Networking Now.

Complete Transcript of BNI Podcast Episode 215 –

Hello everyone and welcome back to The Official BNI Podcast brought to you by NetworkingNow.com, which is the leading site on the net for networking downloadables. I am Priscilla Rice, and I am coming to you from Live Oak Recording Studio in Berkeley, CA. I am joined on the phone today by the Founder and Chairman of BNI, Dr. Ivan Misner. Hello Ivan, how are you today and where are you?

I am doing great, Priscilla. I am in Tucson for a meeting of the Transformational Leadership Council, a Jack Canfield organization that I belong to. So I am here for conferences this weekend.

That sounds interesting. I know you will bring back some good information from that.

I always get great ideas when I am here.

Okay. So what are you going to share with us?

I am going to talk about multi level marketing companies, which I have talked about a little bit in some podcasts but not at length. What gets me to do that is I was asked by a major magazine, Multi Level Marketing Magazine, to talk about the relationship between MLMs and BNI. I thought that might give me a good opportunity to do a podcast on that. Multi level marketing organizations are sometimes called network marketing organizations, which is really confusing because sometimes people think- they refer to BNI as networking marketing.

We are not a multi level marketing organization but we are about marketing and we are definitely about networking. So there is definitely a difference there. I am talking about multi level marketing organizations participating in BNI. For decades, MLMs have been in the organization. As the founder of BNI, I am often asked about the relationship between the organization and MLMs.

I was recently asked by a BNI member whose business is based on a MLM model, “ Why is it that BNI doesn’t allow people in MLM professions the opportunity to share both our products and the business plan, the business opportunity?”

I know that this is going to be a controversial podcast, but it is really important that I explain why this guideline exists. First of all, it was created by members through our Board of Advisors. There were some really good reasons for it, and I want to talk about it.

First, let me say that reputatble MLM companies are more than welcome in BNI. We have had one or more MLM members in many of our 6000 or so groups around the world. As a matter of fact, MLM companies are active in our organization going back to the very first chapter, which started in 1985. I personally approved a MLM representative to become a member of that chapter. He and his wife were members of the organization for almost two decades, good members for a long time.

So to answer to the question that is often asked about promoting both the products and the business opportunities, it’s important, I think, to first have an understanding of the cultural context that permeates the entire BNI organization. Most BNI members understand that. That is we believe that networking is more about farming than it is about hunting. It’s about cultivating those long term relationships with people and -this is really important- each BNI chapter is made up of a variety of professions and there is only one professional classification in any individual chapter. Nobody else in the same business or profession is allowed to represent that. That is kind of an important aspect of the MLM issue.

Understanding this cultural context makes it easier to understand the answer to why BNI doesn’t allow members to share the business opportunity aspect of their MLM business. It’s true that one of our guidelines states that members need to represent their products and services in BNI and not the business opportunity element of the business. That is true and it’s a guideline created by members. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, BNI is all about promoting the products and services that people represent. That is our mission. That is the BNI mission. To promote the products or services that you represent. However, each BNI group is permitted to have one person of each profession or classification. Though it is not a problem if multiple members represent a MLM business, which sells one or more non competing products or services, it can become a problem if one or more of those members begin to talk about the business opportunity part of their business. It creates a problem because it creates competition amongst all the MLM people in a group.

Over the years, we’ve learned this the hard way. When one BNI member pitches a business opportunity during a meeting, every other person who might be in a MLM starts doing the same thing. They want to sell their business opportunity. What we try to do is get them to focus on the product. What happens when one person is pitching is the other members witnesses this opportunity pitch and they get really upset because they feel the opportunity no longer exists for them to attract any other chapter members. I have literally seen verbal knock down drag outs. I am not kidding. Verbal knock down drag outs because one person is stepping on another person’s toes. We’ve probably all seen this to some extent in the organization.

Because of this, our Board of Advisors, made up exclusively of BNI members decided that members representing a MLM company must solely represent their product or service when attending or participating in BNI meetings. Subsequently, these members have to refrain from sharing the business opportunity aspects of their business during that time. This is a decision that was made by the management of the organization, not me. I agree with the decision, don’t get me wrong. But this is something that came from the members and I think it is important for us to understand.

Having said that, I think it’s important to understand that what a member does in a one to one meeting with an individual about their products or services is up to that member. Being professional and non pushy, there is nothing wrong with, in a one to one meeting, talking about various aspects of the products, services and the business opportunity. Here is where it might get a little controversial. Some people might get upset that I am saying this, but the bottom line is I can’t control what two people talk about in a meeting privately. I can’t. Don’t even try.

So if you are going to have a conversation about the products and you want to talk about the business opportunity in the one to one, that is up to you. But in a BNI meeting, we can control that. So it’s very important that in the context of the BNI meeting you represent the product because if we get to know your product and feel good about your product, then it goes back to the original comment about networking being more about farming and building those relationships and that trust. If we trust you and we trust the product, then tell me about the business opportunity one to one.

So strong contact networking groups like BNI are all about going deep in our professional relationships. First and foremost, members should be viewed as referral partners, not just clients. If a member views their BNI chapter as a room full of clients, then their reach is limited to the members in the room. Conversely, if they view their BNI group of valued referral partners, then they can consider their chapter in terms of hundreds, if not thousands, of additional people through their referral partners, and there is a much larger potential referral source of business by viewing your members as referral partners and not just potential clients.

Hunting versus farming is the perfect way to describe BNI’s approach to the MLM issue and the guideline that we have in the organization. I hope this podcast clarifies this topic for people. Remember, it was members who came up with this guideline, not management. What do you think, Priscilla?

I think that’s good. I think that helps explain it. It’s interesting that you say you can’t control what people say to each other and it’s not off limits. You can actually have a one on one and explain how the process works. If somebody wants to join, they can. But they can’t talk about it in a meeting. It makes sense to me.

It is one of our program guidelines. It says, “Multi level marketing members of BNI should represent their products and services in BNI, not the business opportunity element of their business. “ Again, what you do one to when you are presenting your products and services is between you and the prospective client. With that said, I would advise you to go slowly because these are people that you want to build the relationship with and you don’t want to go there too quickly.

Show them what your products do. Be proud of what you have to offer. What is really interesting is I find that a lot of MLM members who take that approach get people who love their products so much that they get people who ask them, “How do I become a representative of this?” When that happens, you know you have a BNI member who is doing it right.

We had a member in our chapter who hit up every single person and then he dropped out. I thought that was hysterical.

I think that is what many people are afraid of when that kind of thing happens to some extent. That’s all I have today, Priscilla.

Great. Thanks, Ivan. I appreciate it. I think that’s it for this week. I would just like to remind the listeners that this podcast has been brought to you by NetworkingNow.com, which is the leading site on the net for networking downloadables. Thank you so much for listening. This is Priscilla Rice and we hope you will join us next week for another exciting episode of The Official BNI Podcast.


  1. says

    Having read the rules and procedures before I joined BNI (Aberdeen, Bravo), I was slightly unsure about the reasons behind it, but very comfortable with “excluding” talking about the business opportunity in the meetings. It is always good to focus (thanks for the reminder at training Iain W) on specific aspects of our business and I couldn’t agree more about being proud and passionate about my services – I think they’re great and already some of Bravo agree – referrals are starting to increase. I have now, to keep focusing on Giving, in order that I deserve to Gain.
    Whilst re-listening to Lead The Field: Earl Nightingale, I was not surprised to recognise the BNI ethos mirrored in put fuel on the fire, if you want heat.

  2. says

    What an incredibly well-timed podcast!

    Last week, someone emailed me asking about BNI chapters in our region. The person was in a well-known MLM company, I referred them to a chapter that a) there was an opening and b) it was the closest chapter to where they lived/worked. I also advised the potential visitor about the restriction on promoting the business opportunity as many times, it has been our chapters’ experience in our region that some people who belong to MLMs, when visiting, do not disclose in advance or when asked, that their business is MLM. During a Sales Manager Moment, they begin to promote the business opportunity, much to the chagrin of the other MLM members in the chapter.

    Here’s what the visitor wrote me:

    “Thank you but we were looking to get involved for the purpose of promoting the business opportunity. We are long past getting customers from our warm market. I don’t understand why BNI would not allow us to promote the business just because you have other MLM companies. This one is very different then most.”

    I replied by citing the MLM guideline that Ivan referenced in the podcast.

    Like Ivan points out, sometimes people think BNI is an MLM itself (and this may have been the case with this potential visitor) or they believe it’s a forum like many non-structured, casual contact organizations that are proliferating in many major US metropolitan areas, that do not restrict membership to one per profession or do not restrict what people can say in these events when they are allowed to give a “pitch” or “elevator speech” (two phrases I absolutely loathe!)

    I ended my reply with the following: “BNI is not your typical business networking activity. (i.e like a business card exchange). We are very structured and we are category specific in terms of our membership. Because of this and because our members hold each other accountable through our program, we are the largest and most successful business networking and referral organization in the world.”

    The visitor followed up with a reply that said “Thanks but we need to grow our downline so I guess we won’t be coming to BNI as we see no value in an organization that won’t allow us to grow our business.”

    Talk about hunting vs. farming and not getting it!

    It’s my prediction that this individual will soon be out of the MLM business and will be proclaiming to the world that “networking doesn’t work.” It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t see the bigger picture and operated out of desperation. We have some amazing members who belong to MLMs in our chapters who do see the bigger picture and are having a fantastic BNI experience. The truth is, their downlines DO grow — in time — because of the reasons and circumstances that Ivan points out.

    People like this potential visitor need to move on and members and chapters shouldn’t feel bad when they do! By passing them up or turning them down if they apply for membership with the wrong attitude, you are preventing a big mistake and avoiding a lot of headaches for everyone.

    Tim Houston
    Area Director, NYC Outer Boroughs Region
    Best Selling Author of
    The World’s Worst Networker

  3. says

    Great topic for a post! I am a longtime BNI supporter and a BNI Assitant Director as well. I am now also a representative of a new, fast growing MLM company. Just having come from this MLM National Convention, it was very interesting to me to see the misconceptions on both sides of the fence about MLMs and about BNI.

    I am so encouraged to see that BNI corporate understands there are great potential members in MLMs and LOVE that you are trying to educate chapters in carefully selecting their members because there definately are a LOT of newer MLM representatives that do not get the relationship building aspect of their business. Success in an MLM must be about the relationships, not the numbers. BNI Membership Committees must be diligent in assuring that the individuals they permit to join their chapter are clear about the stated guideline and their willingness to join in the Giver’s Gain culture. Otherwise, there is a great potential for disappointment, disillusionment and drama. These are three things any chapter can definately do without!

    I will definitely encourage my MLM downline to involve themselves with BNI chapters nationwide, but will be sure to coach them on the Giver’s Gain philosophy up front. This is key to me for their success and also to maintain the reputation of my MLM and BNI – both of which I am passionate about.

    Thanks for continuing to enrich and expand the BNI conversation – I love the podcasts!!

  4. says

    Great comments from all. It’s all about educating exisiting and potential new BNI members. When people hear the entire explanation, they usually get it. Of course, there will always be one here and there (as Tim pointed out in his comments) that will fail to “get it”. Let them go and move forward!

    Another awesome podcast Ivan!

    Shawn McCarthy BNI ED

  5. says

    Personally I disagree with the ruling, I’m also in an MLM in the UK and (I think)a good BNI member.

    I see no difference between speaking about the business opportunity in a 121 or in a 60 seconds, not all of the members would be interested in being a distributor/rep however would be happy to pass a potential referral to someone who may want to join the MLM company. So why shouldn’t we be allowed to remind other members of the benefits of our opportunity and who may be a good referral?

    It is a major part of a distributors business in growing their team and half of our business, it is essentially another service we offer and not allowing it to be mentioned in a 60 seconds is like telling an electrician they can talk about testing but not talk about doing a rewire telling a stationer they can talk about pens but not paper.

    I get the fact that there may be clashes between multiple MLMs in a chapter but to be honest, they should just grow up. If we talk just about referrals here, not everyone would want to join a weight loss MLM as they and not everyone would join a cosmetics MLM so really there is no clash and it would be up to the member who is looking for referrals to decide which one they mention!
    The way round this is to tell all MLM distributors that are looking to join that they have exclusivity only on their product/service and not on the business opportunity the same as is done with solicitors in differing fields of law.

    I’d be interested to know if any MLM distributors had a say in the decision to disallow promotion of this side of our businesses.

    Yes there are ‘hunters’ in MLMs but there are in all professions these are just uneducated networkers though!

    As a note When I originally joined BNI it was as an electrician and I joined my MLM company while in BNI through a distributor, while he never mentioned the business opportunity in his 60 seconds I am so grateful he joined and that I joined the company as it has massively changed my life in more ways than one.
    I am a 5 year member of BNI and passionate about the organisation, I’m also currently on the Membership committee of my chapter.

  6. says

    Hi Paul. Yes, MLM people were involved in the decision. All the policies from BNI are created by our Board of Advisors (members of BNI). I’d be happy to have them them review the matter again. However, given the serious problems that we used to have – I doubt if they will change their position. If you’d like me to present it to them, let me know. I’d be willing to give them your comments above and see what they say.

Solutions-focused comments are welcome