Transparency note: I have been involved with Capital Area Local First as a founding board member and more recently in efforts to stimulate sustainable local community development.

As a dues-paying member of CALF, last week I was able to view without additional cost (a privilege of membership) a webinar from the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies that is part of their “Accelerating Community Capital” series. The webinar featured the folks from Slow Money North Carolina, who have crafted a mechanism for connecting small local entrepreneurs who need an infusion of cash with local citizens willing to lend a hand. In less than two years they have helped funnel investments of more than $500,000 into the hands of those trying to grow their local businesses. Investments as low as $500 and as large as $25,000 have been hatched through this relationship-building mechanism.

Unbeknownst to me, we exercised a similar approach locally in the past couple of months. A local businessperson was stymied in an attempt to accelerate her business because of a needed immediate infusion of about $1,500. Insufficient cash flow in her business was going to delay this significant business accelerator for months. I floated the idea to her of raising the needed funds through folks who already supported her business. A short email note to a list I created of potential investors to invest $100 each proved successful. Actually, we received commitments exceeding what was needed. One potential investor suggested being paid back through a gift card worth more than the initial investment, thus continuing the support for the business beyond the initial investment. 

The business owner loved the idea and offered a generous return on investment for those who preferred that option.

This idea of building stronger relationships between a community and local businesses is the foundation of the many ”Go Local” networks thriving across the country and around the world. Perhaps it’s a response to globalization or to the “There is no alternative” mindset that globalizers since Margaret Thatcher have been selling us. But at its heart, I think, is the desire to build communities that are about strong relationships — between each other, between businesses, between businesses and civil society. It’s as if the first question an entrepreneur asks is, "What can I make that I love and the world needs?” as opposed to ”How can I become financially well off?” To grow an idea, one does need enough financial flow to both keep the business afloat and support the owner(s); but businesses with a heart, whose owners see their own success tied to the health and well-being of the larger community in which they are housed, are getting additional support through the increased visibility of ‘Go Local’ initiatives.

Next month, Grand Rapids will host the national conference of the ‘Go Local’ movement. The 10th Annual BALLE Conference, which runs May 15-19, will attract more than a thousand local entrepreneurs from around the country who are building community while building their own livelihoods and who will share their ideas, enthusiasm and energy for local community development. Zingerman’s CEO Paul Saginaw is one of the national leaders of this movement, as is restaurateur Judy Wicks and Longfellow Clubs owner Laury Hammel. They and many more entrepreneurs will be there to share their stories on how local businesses deeply committed to a community can build community wealth. 

One of the conference keynotes will be by Grand Rapids’ own Fred Keller, CEO of Cascade Engineering. Cascade Engineering is Michigan’s first certified B-Corporation, a new form of corporation that affirms community interest as part of its charter. With more than 1,000 employees spread among 14 business activities, Cascade Engineering strives for a triple-bottom-line return — financial, social and environmental. 

Attending one of the earlier BALLE conferences a few years ago inspired me to try and spark the localization focus, harnessing the combined energy of local entrepreneurs to simultaneously build a collaborative network of businesses that could strengthen the local community overall. I would unabashedly encourage any local businessperson or community development-minded citizen to attend this inspiring event next month. If you happen to join CALF before you register, you’ll receive a discount now that CALF has become a local BALLE network member. 

And among other things, you’ll have free access to a year’s worth of online webinars for building local prosperity.

(Terry Link was the founding director of MSU´s Office of Campus Sustainability and recently retired as director of the Greater Lansing Food Bank.)