Geri Stengel

 
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Small Business Networks Help Each Other and Their Communities

The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) is a great example of what you, through survey responses, and I have been saying for a long time: Peer support is a valuable asset to small business owners and social entrepreneurs.

small business network, small business online community, small business support, social entrepreneurs, triple bottom lineBALLE is an example of a support network that produces triple-bottom line results, that is people, profit, and planet. In other words, it's a network of businesses that takes into account communities, employees, and the environment as well as the usual financial bottom line.

It means local, small business networks built around issues of interest in their communities, whether it is "buy locally" or "green building" or "sustainable agriculture."

The Power and the Value of Local
BALLE uses the power of locally owned businesses and the triple bottom line as change agents for communities, says
Alissa Barron Communications and Network Services Director.

With the help of BALLE, entrepreneurs, social innovators, and community leaders band together to make a difference right there at home. So far, 20,000 businesses have joined.

Each of the 80 small business networks is independent. BALLE doesn't make the rules, just lends a hand. Each forms around the issues important in its community but uses the tools BALLE offers in order to organize quickly and effectively.

Some of the networks are focused on preserving the local economy and character; others focus on green energy and zero-waste; others focus on all of the above and more.

I'm the person who talks about "support, support, support," as well as an advocate of social enterprise, so I really like these networks. They provide support to small businesses while allowing social entrepreneurs and small business owners to be creative, innovative, and in charge of their own destiny.

What Makes A "Living Economy" Business?
Where business decisions are made – locally or in a main office far away – is BALLE's membership test. Whether a business is saintly in its environmental practices doesn't matter nearly as much, as long as the business wants to improve, that is, striving to pay living wages and switch to sustainable, greener practices.

While not isolationist – no community can survive these days without drawing on outside resources – BALLE businesses use local resources first. And local people, planet, and profits benefit first.

As BALLE points out, more of the money spent at a local business recirculates in the local economy, creating more local business and more local jobs. The environment benefits by shorter supply chain, and so on.

And businesses that are part of the community are more likely to care about the community, its environment, and the welfare of its residents so they'll come up with even more ideas!

What's not to like?

What BALLE Does
BALLE (the international network) provides the local networks with resources to organize and to meet their goals. That support starts with the first business owner who calls BALLE to ask "How can I start a network?" and includes training guides, workshops, conferences, and problem-solving with other network leaders.

BALLE helps the network develop without having to reinvent the wheel.

What the Local Networks Do

In the small community like Sonoma County, California, members include the local newspaper, a community bank, a bookstore, farmers, accountants, a hardware store, and restaurants, among others.

Their focus is encouraging people to buy locally from the small businesses that will have the most impact on the local economy.

With materials supplied by BALLE, this network educates residents, other businesses, and government officials about the multiplier effect of dollars spent in locally owned businesses and sets up programs to support local purchases, such as coupon books.

Sustainable Business Network of New York City has members from all five boroughs, ranging from a deli to an industrial manufacturer, from purveyors of building supplies to rental office space. Their common ground? The triple bottom line: the desire to improve their communities, protect the environment, and make a good profit.

This network provides mentorship, peer support, and help with marketing campaigns aimed at values-driven consumers.

Do you think local small business networks can improve communities? Have you had any experience with business networks? Did they work? Would you join a triple-bottom line network if one were available to you? What's stopping you from starting such a network?

 

Illustration: © Janet Giampietro