Not even a year ago, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce found itself staggering against the ropes. The 43-year-old organization -- known through much of its history as the Negro Chamber of Commerce to clearly distinguish it from the then all-white Board of Trade -- had been rocked by scandal: James L. Denson, head of the chamber, was alleged to have misappropriated thousands of the chamber's dollars. The scandal loomed as possibly the decisive blow, the karate chop to the Adam's apple that threatened to finish off the traditional voice of black and small business in Washington. t

So, it was with great satisfaction that the new, improved D.C. chamber threw itself a party in the Grand Ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel Friday to demonstrate the premature nature of all the obituaries.

Over consomme, stuffed cornish hen, broccoli, spinach and a dessert of vanilla ice cream swimming in creme de menthe, members and friends who stood by the chamber during its brush with death took an evening to congratulate themselves and the institution.

The chamber's comeback strategy, leaders say, will be to take a cue from the times and adopt a "small is beautiful" philosophy, avoiding past extravagances like the sponsorship of a delegation to Egypt in November 1979 and concentrating instead on attracting small businesses -- from consulting firms to gas stations -- as new members.

Denson's stewardship ended with the chamber $150,000 in debt; the organization is still negotiating with creditors to settle its accounts. Chamber officials acknowledge that the organization still has practically no funds and was able to maintain an office, for example, only with the help of D.C. housing director Robert L. Moore, who found space for them in city property at 716 11th St. NW. On Friday night, the chamber gave Moore's boss, Mayor Marion Barry, a public service award.

But in return for their dues, the new members would demand services. The Greater Washington Board of Trade is the dominant business lobby in Washington, the voice of local business at the City Council and on Capitol Hill. The chamber, on the other hand, hasn't uttered a whisper lately. The businesses the chamber is seeking would have to be given a reason for choosing membership in the chamber over joining the Board of Trade or simply saving the money, as many do now.

The chamber envisions abandoning its large-scale ambitions of the recent past and returning to its more traditional rule of providing service and representation to the city's small businesses, many of them owned by blacks.

"We think there are a lot of services we can provide," said 32-year-old realtor Carlton Jones, president of the D.C. chamber since Jan. 1. "We will do a newsletter to keep people informed of what's happening. And we're planning seminars and workshops on business. For example, small computers are very affordable right now for even very, very small businesses. We could have a workshop on that." Jones said the chamber has also set up an internal committee structure in preparation for lobbying the City Council on issues affecting business.

Another chamber official downplayed the alleged misappropriation of funds during the Denson debacle, saying, "I still don't believe Jim (Denson) really took a nickel."

The official acknowledged, however, that "Jim was wheeling and dealing, no question about that, shifting a lot of money here and there. But what he was doing was trying to make us look a lot bigger and more important than we really were. We tried to get too big too fast, going to Cairo and all that." According to Jones, the chamber is still trying to sort out the finances of the trip to Egypt and determine whether it lost money.

After the allegations surfaced, Denson resigned both as head of the chamber and as chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. Barry ordered a city investigation into the chamber's handling of $472,000 in District and federal funds, but the mayor has thus far declined to make the report public. Nor has D.C. government funding of the chamber, suspended at the time of the Denson allegations, been resumed.

Despite the allegations, no formal investigations are now being conducted into Denson's activities during his tenure at the chamber, and no formal charges have ever been filed.

The chamber's dinner this year reflected its new downscale approach, as well as its depressed finances. In contrast to the version of two years ago, which featured an all-white dance band and an audience of 1,500, Friday's dinner was a simpler affair for about 300 with music by a small local group that played middle-of-the-road jazz. Foxtrots gave way to polite boogie.