Great Ideas From the American Independent Business Alliance Leadership Gathering

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Betsy Burton

Bookseller, author, and Local First Utah organizer Betsy Burton shares her experiences at the American Independent Business Alliance's (AMIBA) First Annual Leadership Gathering, which was held in Austin, Texas, on November 9 - 11.

By Betsy Burton of The Kings English Bookshop

The cab ride from the Austin airport featured a continuous streetscape of funky businesses, all appropriate to the Austin Independent Business Alliance (AIBA) motto, Keep Austin Weird. Austin is weird to my Salt Lake eyes, but in the best of ways -- a completely un-homogenized mix of unique retail shops butted up against coffee bars and small restaurants, bars, and ice cream walk-ups, old-world hotels, import shops and galleries, chain-free and chock full of character, at least until you near the downtown area.

The Leadership Gathering's opening reception was held at Doc's Motor Works, where we drank locally brewed beer and met people from Canada to California, Montana to Florida -- all of whom were talking passionately about the importance of locally owned and independent.

Following the reception, ABA's Oren Teicher brought all of the participating booksellers together for dinner. We joined Steve Bercu of Austin's Bookpeople, Carla Jimenez of Inkwood Books in Tampa, Florida, Clark Kepler of Kepler's in Menlo Park, California, for a wonderful Mexican dinner, where we talked (again) about the importance of the concepts of "locally owned" and "independent" to our survival. (We also talked about books, of course.)

The next morning Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the Joan of Arc of the movement, spoke to us with her customary passion and vision. Stacy always thinks outside the box (especially the big box), and when I mentioned the need for city governments to help independent retailers buy their locations before their success has priced them out of the neighborhoods they built, she had all kinds of ideas. A business can get a Small Business Administration loan, she said, but since those loans require 30 percent down and a balloon at the end of what is usually a short-term loan, the city might provide gap loans to help on both ends. Stacy also suggested the city might set up different property tax rates for owner-operated businesses. Since one of the biggest problems in the book business is stores beset by ever-increasing rents, both suggestions seemed important enough to justify the trip.

Public Relations and Outreach

The first panel of the day was on PR. Don Baumgardt from Homegrown El Paso gave facts and figures for an aggressive (but inexpensive) TV advertising campaign, along with ideas about using local supermarkets to pass out directories; having billboards paid for by businesses that want to advertise their localness (Local Rocks); and, best of all, a Magic Bus (a VW, of course) as a moving bill board. He also showed us a terrific poster filled with reasons to buy local, many of which were funny.

Sally Steuver of Maine's Portland Independent Business and Community Alliance had a raft of good ideas as well. My personal favorite was a gift card tag that had a buy local logo in the corner, the customary "to:" and "from:" and underneath, a line that said, "This gift was purchased from a locally owned independent business." The Portland alliance has also created a window-sized poster that features huge bows and, in big letters, the words, "Buy Local." These are used to fill empty windows in non-retail businesses and windows in empty buildings. They also have a YouTube video, a MySpace page, a local art-walk night, and posters featuring 10 reasons to buy local.


I presented the first part of the session on fundraising, and I offered "10 Rules to Make Raising Funds for Local First and Independent Business Alliances Easy." Rule one is to fit your organization to your community and be clear about your goals before making organizational or fundraising decisions. At Local First Utah, since our mission is to get the word out to the public and to politicians as widely and as quickly as possible, public education is essential. Having high membership numbers is, therefore, our primary goal since those numbers give us the high profile that allows us to spread our message. The money, we have always reasoned, will follow.

We are statewide (more population to draw from); membership (we call it partnership) is free; and we don't charge our business partners for ads in the directory. The Local First Utah philosophy is to give to businesses, not to ask them to give to us. We have recruited over 1,300 business partners in two years, so the strategy has worked. Our numbers have given us clout with politicians and the press and that has helped us enormously in getting our message out to the public and in fundraising as well.

Rule one, then, is to create an organization that will fit your community, then establish your message and create a high profile -- the message will spread and the money will follow. Rules two through 10 have to do with obtaining that money. In general terms, they involve having a clear understanding of the needs of every government organization, corporation, or foundation from which you want to solicit funds so that you can give them exactly what they're looking for (by building programs in disadvantaged areas or promoting tourism, for instance), so long as to do so fits within your mission; creating partnerships with like organizations in order to spread visibility further and share campaign costs; and finding templates for everything you have to do (there's no need to reinvent the wheel here, since another organization has likely already done everything you need to do and is happy to give you a template via return e-mail). You can also download the Big Box Tool Kit (courtesy Stacy Mitchell at and look up any number of templates on the websites of the American Booksellers Association, the American Independent Business Alliance, or the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). Finally, obtaining a 501c3 designation from the IRS so individuals and corporations can write off their donations is infinitely helpful in raising money.

Vicki Pozzebon from the Sante Fe Alliance spoke next and emphasized the need for diversity in successful fundraising. She also mentioned partnerships with other organizations and other programs as a way to keep funds coming in from a variety of different streams -- especially since there are 3,000 non-profit organizations in Santa Fe, which creates intense competition for funds on the one hand, but many opportunities for partnership on the other. Sante Fe has a whole raft of interesting initiatives from a farm-to-restaurant program called Edible Sante Fe, to an Annual Picnic Barbeque to programs that emphasize social justice.

Vicki has an interesting and extensive fundraising background, and she suggested that we join AFP (The Association for Fund Raising Professionals) as it provides such useful information and ideas. She also said that state foundations help not-for-profit organizations, giving free seminars on a variety of topics. Her alliance doesn't have 501c3 status, but funnels donations through AMIBA for a five percent fee. A final fundraising opportunity she mentioned was the Locals Care loyalty card, which she discussed at a later session.

Land Use Policy, Zoning Codes & More

Stacy Mitchell next presented some interesting ideas regarding localizing through forward-thinking policies and land use (for in-depth information go to the New Rules Project at and to her groundbreaking book, The Big Box Swindle, Beacon Press). Stacy pointed out the role government subsidies have played in Big Box development and gave examples of some communities with progressive initiatives to counter this: Maine's Informed Growth Act (economic impact study required for buildings over 75,000 feet); an Arizona ordinance prohibiting subsidies for big box developments; a proposed ordinance in Salt Lake protecting neighborhood business districts from "formula" businesses; and Bellingham Washington's 90,000-square-foot size cap.

Stacy suggests we work in the areas of land use policy and zoning codes, transportation and infrastructure, and the spending of economic development funds in ways that level rather than tilt the playing field. Among her tips are: build personal relationships over time with city council and economic development people; do candidate questionnaires and member surveys about local issues; keep your message positive; be proactive (don't wait for disaster but formulate economic development strategies that grow local businesses and work for regulation changes); work with a diversity of people to form partnerships that further your cause; find a champion who can be the face (or the pocketbook) of a campaign; use language that tells a story (like the "Informed Growth Act") and avail yourself of all the existing resources, from her own website to ABA's to AMIBA's to BALLE's. Stacy talked about commercial land trusts that would work the same way housing trusts now work to serve neighborhoods and spoke of progressive antitrust policies in other countries and of unfair big box and Internet competition.

About Internet competition, Oren told the group that the laws are clear, and that if a company has physical presence, that is nexus and taxes must be collected. If collection doesn't occur, complain! Sixteen states have signed on to the streamlined sales tax initiative -- to get a list go to

Other important issues are a living wage (Sante Fe's Living Wage Network addresses this -- they have a $9 minimum wage), small business access to health insurance, and policies giving preference to locals in government purchasing (a new Albuquerque ordinance). Stacy was a font of information, and I could go on for another 12 pages. Read her book!

Entrepreneurial Programs

Three new entrepreneurial programs were featured next, two from Austin's IBA. First was the CLIC (Connecting and Linking Independent Business With Commercial Development) Program, which grew out of a survey indicating that people wanted local businesses in a new mall. The idea behind the CLIC program is to help developers find a healthy mix of businesses to populate their new developments. This would give locals new opportunities and extend our uniqueness out into the suburbs. Since the existing brokers work with chains, the Austin alliance helps connect locals and developers through an annual trade show. The program has been successful in raising money for the alliance (80 percent of AIBA's private donations come from the trade show) and in linking up locals with new locations.

Austin's other new initiative is IBIZ: Independent Business Investment Zones. There are presently four such zones and a goal of 20, all ultimately to be connected on a citywide map. Each zone is small (a few blocks), and the goal is to facilitate communication between businesses in each district through monthly meetings, and to brand them through brochures, banners, fliers, an ad campaign and web-page listings, thus creating public awareness.

Finally, since the representative from the Flagstaff Independent Business Alliance was ill, Jennifer Rockne, AMIBA's executive director, gave a brief presentation of the Flagstaff Fishbowl, a program that allows business peers and the public to critique each business. So far the results have been good, and although the presentation was necessarily brief, it seemed like a promising idea.

Executive Directors

The last session of the day was about executive directors and both presenters, Austin's Steve Bercu, and Sante Fe's Vicki Pozzebon, agreed that hiring an executive director was an important step for an IBA. Steve, in fact, said hiring an ED was his intention from the day they began -- that there is far too much work for volunteers and any board will burn out. Vicki talked about burnout of the ED and said that servicing membership takes an inordinate amount of time and that there should be a membership coordinator paid for by commissions or a salary. She spoke of the importance of the ED having not-for-profit experience because of the need for expertise in fundraising, and of having an office since it was hard to get volunteer help without one. AMIBA ED Jennifer Rockne said that AmeriCorps and VISTA are wonderful sources for volunteers, and there was a discussion of other sources for volunteers from internship programs.

The next morning began with a general session, where Oren was asked to talk about the American Booksellers Association's involvement in the movement. He said that ABA saw the efforts of independent business alliances and local first organizations -- most of which have at least one bookstore as a member -- as crucial to the success of all of us: that the single most compelling reasons for a consumer to visit independent stores was the fact of their independence. He also said we have a window now, but it's going to get harder and harder once chains realize the challenge we are presenting and begin to counter it -- especially given their enormous resources. There was then a discussion about AMIBA's size and growth. Fundraising strategies were also discussed, and Oren again pointed out that our strength is in our numbers and that we need to grow fast.

Loyalty Cards

The next session was on loyalty cards. As promised, Vicki Pozzebon told us about Santa Fe's Locals Care loyalty card, which allows the consumer to earn Community Points. When a 1,000 points are accumulated, the cardholder receives the equivalent of $10 to redeem on qualifying merchandise and services at participating businesses. Those businesses also donate a portion of every purchase made with the card to a participating nonprofit chosen by the cardholder, and a smaller portion is directed to a Local Cares Community Fund. The package includes a very attractive sleeve, the card, which is equally attractive, and a list of participating businesses. It is administered by a for-profit company, merchants pay a fee, it is free to consumers, and is currently being tied to the debit card of a local bank, which will greatly expand the participant numbers. The city helps with an economic development grant of $20,000 for marketing and promotion. The card raises substantial amounts for charity but not much for the Santa Fe Alliance as yet -- although that may change, and the card is a wonderful PR tool, helpful in raising consumer awareness.

A representative from Keep Edmonton Original told us how a group of restaurants is using a "Power Card" for both gift and loyalty card programs.

Membership Recruitment

At the final session, which was on membership recruitment, AMIBA co-founder Jeff Milchen gave us a number of ideas including using personal connections; creating partnerships to recruit based on both shared neighborhoods and shared trades; enlisting the help of "true believers"; renewing members with an automatic debit card system; and printing a directory so there is a tangible reward for membership.

There was some discussion of low versus high dues and a lot of disagreement on the point. Dana Eness from New Orleans' Stay Local said that the micro-businesses, which make her city what it is, can't pay high dues. They now have free membership and have 1,100 members. El Paso's Don Baumgardt said that if members want value they need to pay for it, and Carla Jimenez of the Tampa Independent Business Alliance echoed that sentiment. I said it depends what your organization's mission is: If what you're after is a cohesive membership, high dues may be the way to go, but if your mission is "to educate (read influence here) the public about the benefits of locally owned independent business to their community," a large no-fee membership, which has a high profile, garners lots of attention from media, and makes fundraising easy, might be the way to go. Besides, free membership cuts way down on the administration of any IBA or LF (and since I'm writing this, I'm having the last word on the issue).

In general, the gathering offered great information and lots of opportunities for the exchange of ideas, techniques, and materials. Each organization brought expertise and imagination to the table. This movement is in high gear, and anything any of us can do to foster it will increase all of our chances of survival. I left feeling optimistic about all things locally owned and independent.

Betsy Burton is co-owner of The King's English in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the author of The Kings' English, a September 2006 Book Sense Pick, published by Gibbs Smith.

A Sign of the Times: Oxford's Word of the Year

The New Oxford American Dictionary's 2007 Word of the Year is "locavore," according to Oxford University Press' OUPblog.

From the OUPblog:

The "locavore" movement encourages consumers to buy from farmers' markets or even to grow or pick their own food, arguing that fresh, local products are more nutritious and taste better. Locavores also shun supermarket offerings as an environmentally friendly measure, since shipping food over long distances often requires more fuel for transportation.

"The word 'locavore' shows how food-lovers can enjoy what they eat while still appreciating the impact they have on the environment," said Ben Zimmer, editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press. "It's significant in that it brings together eating and ecology in a new way."

"Locavore" was coined two years ago by a group of four women in San Francisco who proposed that local residents should try to eat only food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius. Other regional movements have emerged since then, though some groups refer to themselves as "localvores" rather than "locavores." However it's spelled, it's a word to watch.