Civic Minded: The power of small business alliances

Meeting of the Downtown Independent Business Alliance of NYC (Source: DIBA Instagram )

This article is the second in our “Civic Minded” series, where we discuss ways small businesses can create positive impact in their local communities.

As a small business owner, when it comes to effecting change in your community, there’s strength in numbers. That’s why small business alliances can be a powerful way to influence local government and protect the interests of small businesses and the local neighborhood. 

Downtown Independent Business Alliance (DIBA) is one such organization, formed by several business owners and residents from Lower Manhattan after a particularly tight City Council race in November 2017 for their local district (District 1). The founding members came together first to rally around a candidate sympathetic to the unique challenges of the small business community, and ultimately stayed together after the election to continue advocating for local small businesses. 

Since then, DIBA has grown to 55 member businesses and has become a empowering force in the local community. Its initial success as an non-profit, non-partisan business organization serves as a model for other small businesses interested in becoming more proactive in their local neighborhoods. 

Political advocacy

According to Margaret Lee, a local artist and founding member of DIBA, one of the alliance’s most important functions is to work with local elected officials to make the voice of small businesses heard, especially when it comes to addressing day-to-day issues affecting business operations. 

“Many of the problems facing small business owners in our neighborhood are not unique to the individual, but rather collectively experienced: problems with sanitation, street closures, insurance, lease renewals, etc,” Lee says. “It’s easier to tackle these issues as an alliance rather than as individuals.” Currently DIBA is working with city officials to manage the potential traffic congestion to the area stemming from 2019’s planned L-train shutdown.

DIBA also uses its strength in numbers to endorse and vote for candidates that will support their causes, as well as hold their elected officials accountable. Lee asserts that it’s important to not shy away from speaking out against policies that may negatively impact the neighborhood. “Local politicians are easier to reach than one might expect, and there are people who want to listen and act,” she says. 

Resource pooling

In addition to political advocacy, business alliances can pool together their resources to the benefit of its members, especially when it comes to legal, financial, and marketing services, according to Lee. The collective bargaining power of an alliance is especially useful in negotiating for better healthcare, as such organizations can also take advantage of Association Health Plans, which allow small businesses and self-employed workers to band together by industry or geography and negotiate for better and more affordable healthcare coverage as though they were a single large employer. DIBA is currently looking into establishing such a plan.

Small businesses can look to success stories like the Freelancers Union, which began in 2010 as a non-profit advocacy group for freelancers and self-employed individuals in the U.S. Now at 57 million members, the association is able to offer discounts with selected business partners as well as a whole suite of affordable insurance options, including health, dental, disability, term life, liability and retirement plans.

Networking and knowledge sharing

Networking is a natural part of any business association, but business alliances can take this one step further by tapping into the network’s shared knowledge and experience to the benefit of all members.

DIBA uses its network to host workshops, panels, and discussion groups to problem solve the urgent issues faced by small businesses. In one such workshop co-hosted by DIBA and the New Art Dealers Alliance, Jeanne Hardy from Creative Business Inc. discussed remedies for the biggest challenges facing small business owners as they work toward growth and sustainability. 

The alliance is also planning to fund and conduct research to show the state of small businesses in Lower Manhattan, which will provide the statistics needed to support and advance their overall causes. 

Forming a small business alliance

One of the biggest challenges to forming a small business alliance or association is simply getting started. As Lee puts it, “Almost every aspect of running an alliance is challenging since DIBA is still run on a volunteer basis and all the participants are small business owners that are already overwhelmed with the day-to-day operations of their own businesses.”

For many of the members, managing the alliance is like running a second business. Most associations and alliances will need to incorporate and file for nonprofit status in order to collect dues and fundraise, and members will also need to elect a board of directors and pass governing bylaws, as well as develop a mission statement and goals. 

However, the headaches of the logistical and administrative tasks are often offset by the camaraderie that develops between the alliance members and local community. Recruitment has never been a problem, according to Lee. “It’s quite easy to get the conversation started with business owners, as many are excited to speak and collaborate with colleagues on innovating and problem solving,” she says. “It was amazing to see how many local businesses new and old attended our first meeting.”