Five Ways to Help Your Community Go Local

For four consecutive years, Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) has undertaken a unique research project, surveying thousands of independent businesses about their sales figures from year to year. The results of ILSR’s latest survey offered encouraging news for entrepreneurs battered by the recession and for organizations working to sustain vital communities.

Independent businesses in U.S. communities with an active Buy Independent / Buy Local (BIBL) campaign reported the strongest figures since the surveys began—a 5.6 percent increase over the previous year. This increase was more than two and a half times the gain (2.1 percent) reported by independent businesses located in areas lacking such a campaign.

Among independent retailers, which comprised just under half of nearly 2,800 surveys tabulated, the contrast was even more dramatic during the holiday season. Those in communities with BIBL campaigns experienced a 5.2 percent increase in holiday sales, while retailers elsewhere reported an average gain of just 0.8 percent.

The most influential community campaigns inspire residents to recognize their power and responsibility to guide the community’s future.

While the survey proves correlation, not causation, the consistently positive numbers each year for businesses served by these local alliances is powerful evidence that sustained and sophisticated campaigns can shift local culture.

In addition to the sales figures, nearly two-thirds of survey respondents said public awareness of the benefits of supporting locally owned businesses had increased in the last year and 55 percent said their local campaigns had made existing customers more loyal.

“Independent Business Alliances and ‘buy local’ campaigns are becoming a basic tool for independent businesses to help differentiate themselves from their big-box and Internet competition by highlighting their meaningful connection to the community,” said Kathleen McHugh, director of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association. ASTRA was among many independent trade associations to cooperate in the survey.

While not every local alliance is politically active, many consciously seek to build a counterforce to institutions like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and state groups that serve large corporate interests, so participating alliances were pleased to learn more than half of survey respondents in BIBL communities said local government officials had become more aware and supportive of independents’ concerns.

Want to help your and your neighbors’ dollars stay in your community? Here are five ideas:

  1. As a consumer, look at the big stuff first.
    Our choices for bank accounts, groceries, and energy consumption, for example, can play a big role in helping promote local self-sufficiency. Some groups ask residents to shift 10 percent of their spending from outside entities or chains to local businesses.
  2. As a citizen, exercise your right to participate in spending decisions.
    Learn where your tax money is spent. Can your city or town source more office supplies from local dealers? More school lunches from local ranchers and farmers? Are local governments using local insurers, banks, and suppliers? Learn about the current situation from purchasing officials (including their opinions) and available tools, such as local purchasing preferences and farm to school programs to inform suggestions.
  3. Utilize the power of anchor institutions.
    Just as with government entities, shifting the spending of hospitals, prisons, museums and other community-rooted institutions can create huge positive impacts and new opportunities. These institutions often have public service as part of their mission, and often are open to citizen input. provides a vast array of tools to help you get started. Also if you support local civic groups, youth sports teams, etc., learn where they’re going for their needs. It’s stunning how often local non-profit groups will solicit independent businesses for donations, yet buy their food, supplies, printing, etc. from chain competitors.
  4. Help provoke a pro-local business alliance.
    The key word is provoke! Most of us don’t have time to create new organizations, but as the success of local businesses and community alliances grows, arranging an effective public meeting often will ignite ongoing organizing.
  5. Differentiate our roles as citizens vs. consumers.
    While shifting consumer decisions is a core goal of any educational efforts, the most influential community campaigns inspire residents to recognize their power and responsibility to guide the community’s future.

Jeff Milchen wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jeff founded the first Independent Business Alliance in 1998 and is a co-founder of the American Independent Business Alliance, a non-profit organization helping cities and towns organize effective pro-local business campaigns and alliances. AMIBA also provides a free monthly email bulletin with localization news and tools.

There’s a wide array of policy tools your community and state can use to nurture healthy development and enhance local self-sufficiency. The New Rules Project is a great place to get recommendations and examples from many communities, as well as the full report on the 2010 independent business survey.