Growing Local Value: How to Build Business Partnerships That Strengthen Your Community

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Hanna Andersson founder Gun Denhart and BALLE co-founder Laury Hammel show how every aspect of a business (from product creation to employee recruitment to vendor selection) holds the dual promise of bigger profits and a stronger local community.

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1 Customer and community first

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An entrepreneur finds a need and fills it. However, if you’re one of a fast-growing group of people starting and running companies all across the country (and that includes us), you want to build a business that goes a step further and fills real needs that will improve the quality of people’s lives.

Unfortunately, not all successful businesses sell products that make our lives better. A consumerist culture driven by omnipresent marketing often influences us to buy things we really don’t need. When products are designed to meet artificial needs, they generally have a negative impact on our communities.

Of course, determining which needs are real and which are not can be tricky. You may be thinking that no one should pretend to determine your real needs. And you might even ask, “Shouldn’t the marketplace alone determine whether or not a product succeeds?” Yes, the marketplace is the absolute ruler when it comes to the success or failure of a product.

But it’s also true that in most cases, long-term business success is directly related to the ultimate value of the product to society. We’re sure you could point out plenty of examples of products that have been around for a long time that don’t serve real needs, but as a rule, the products with the longest staying power tend to be the ones that meet actual needs. And going a step further, plenty of us are looking to make purchases that offer genuine value and also match our values. Whether we’re considering a hybrid car or Seventh Generation paper towels, we’ve definitely become more discriminating customers.

 

2 Values-based financing

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As an entrepreneur, you’re well aware that you need capital to make your business vision a reality. For most of us, this means partnering with financial investors. Forging these financial partnerships is one of the most complicated and arduous tasks you’ll face as an entrepreneur. This chapter will give you strategic guidance and practical examples that will make this job a bit easier and at the same time help you make a meaningful contribution to your community. You’ll see that when values-driven entrepreneurs team with socially conscious investors, they form a powerful combination, and the possibilities for the business and the community are truly limitless.

Choosing the right financial partners has been an underappreciated way for entrepreneurs to contribute to the community. When looking for money, it’s natural for you to be more concerned about finding investors than about using your financial partnerships as a way to help the community. But the way you capitalize your business and where you do your banking can make a difference in your community.

 

3 Partnering with your employees

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Staff members are the heart and soul of a company. They create the product and deliver it to the customer, and their skills and attitude make or break a business. In fact, when you get right down to it, the very essence of your company culture and the values you hold dear are expressed through your employees.

It’s no secret that building strong and vibrant relationships with your employees is essential for business success! The futures of your business and your staff are bound together, and it only makes sense to move your business-staff relationship to the level of partnership. The strongest partnerships are those in which both parties have much to lose and much to gain. The larger the stakes, the greater the potential for a robust partnership—and your employees have a great deal at stake in the success of your business. Having a satisfying and well-paying job is essential to living a good life. Full-time employees structure their lives around their jobs and spend a majority of their waking hours (and usually their most productive time) working for the business and giving their creative energy. For longtime employees, building the company can become their career or even their life’s work. Our careers say much about how we think about ourselves and greatly influence our self-esteem.

 

4 Business networking for local value

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It’s likely that one reason you’ve chosen to become an entrepreneur is to be free and independent, but when you open a business, you’re actually joining a network of literally thousands of interdependent businesses. Not only are the partnerships we form within this network critical to our success and the longevity of our businesses, but they also present tremendous opportunities to grow local value.

The three basic categories of businesses that you can form partnerships with are businesses traditionally referred to as vendors or suppliers, businesses in your industry, and local businesses in your community.

If you run a grocery store, hardware store, or other retail establishment, you are dependent on the companies that supply you with the products you sell. If you are a manufacturer, you rely on suppliers, distributors, and retailers. Even if you own a software company, you require the support of companies that construct computers as well as those that market and package your product.

In some companies the relationships with vendors are perhaps less obvious, but no less important, and include insurance agents, HMOs, and janitorial services. When these relationships work, your business can focus its time and energy on upgrading existing products, creating new products, and improving customer service. When these relationships don’t work, doing business can be problematic. In extreme cases, poor vendor relationships can actually bring down a business. For example, a poor relationship with an insurance agent can mean not having an appropriate policy when dealing with the aftermath of a hurricane.

 

5 Creating partnerships with nonprofits

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Businesses have a long tradition of contributing to the health and vitality of the community by supporting local nonprofit organizations, such as human service agencies, environmental groups, schools, and youth organizations. For some business leaders the motivation to give is rooted in a genuine interest in supporting the community. For others, contributions are a public relations tool undertaken out of pure self-interest. We suggest that you can embrace both motivations.

You might ask, “Who cares what the motivation is?” We believe that motives do matter; they reflect your company’s values, which last through changes in personnel and programs. The key is finding a contribution strategy that communicates the values you are trying to promote. What is your message to your employees if giving is based solely on the amount of media attention you receive? How likely are your customers to remember your community involvement if you are supporting causes completely unrelated to your business? We hope this chapter will inspire you to design a community program that allows you both to give from the heart and to maximize the impact of your contributions.

 

6 Making sustainability your competitive advantage

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Like most business leaders today, you are concerned about the environment and you want your business to be environmentally friendly. But what many entrepreneurs want and how they do business may be two different things. You might lack specific knowledge, or maybe business is just too crazy, so recycling and conserving energy don’t quite move up to the top priority. Most of us are guilty of not paying enough attention to how our business impacts the environment. This chapter will demonstrate the awesome potential of local businesses to be successful and help save our planet.

Over thirty-five years after the first Earth Day and the enactment of significant government environmental regulations, and despite efforts by environmental activists of all stripes, the footprint of business on our natural world remains massive. The issue of climate change resulting from doing business on this planet is no longer a debate. The critical question now is, how much time do we have before it’s too late to reverse the disastrous trends?

 

7 Collaborating with government

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Local, state, and federal governments all have much to gain from the success of your business. When your vision includes collaboration with government agencies, partnerships are possible that benefit both your business and your community.

Governmental bureaucracies, regulations, and other hurdles may have scared you away from developing successful business-government partnerships. You may think you don’t have the necessary time or patience. But times are changing, and business-government collaboration has become an important concept for the twenty-first century. If building your business and growing local value is your goal, then looking for ways to work with government agencies should be on your agenda.

Your business can choose from a wide variety of methods for constructing bridges with government agencies to build a stronger community. The list below offers basic categories of government-business partnerships.

(Abuses of public-private partnerships obviously occur when politics and lobbying play a role in determining which company wins a contract.)

 

8 Building a bridge to the future

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As an entrepreneur you can build a business that contributes to your community in ways that go far beyond selling a good product. You can leverage your relationships with all of your stakeholders to help strengthen your community and contribute to the common good.

This becomes even more profound when you consider that you are helping create a feeling of home and a sense of place for people in your community. Having a home is important to all of us. It may not be perfect, but when we think of home we want it to feel comfortable and safe and to bring warmth to our hearts.

Not everyone has a home. Even people who own a house may not feel secure or might even feel homeless. When we are physically or psychologically disconnected, we feel alienated from our world. We may have more technological conveniences today, but these devices don’t help us feel grounded in a community.

Feeling at home comes from those invisible social, emotional, and spiritual parts of us that we experience through relationships with other people. When no one is around whom we know or love or can talk with, we feel isolated and not a part of a community. We may be surrounded by people and yet be lonely.

 

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