In 2006, a small group of Milwaukee independent businesses owners began to meet to discuss how to make the community more sustainable, highlight the unique character of local businesses and advocate to the community the benefits of choosing local businesses first. From those conversations emerged Our Milwaukee — a name that demonstrated the pride the founders felt about their city. By 2011, the organization had grown to more than 200 member businesses and non-profits and changed their name to Local First Milwaukee to strengthen their identity and clarify their mission and brand.
Last year, Local First Milwaukee developed their first-ever fundraising event, Food Fright. More than 100 people attended at member business Lakefront Brewery and enjoyed food and beverage samples from 18 local restaurants and caterers. “The vendors, guests, and members who attended had a blast, we didn’t incur much of an expense, and we raised a little money and made the news!” reports director Kelly Andrew. “Food businesses were featured, which brought them into the light and our community literally got a taste of what our membership offers.” Andrew noted the Food Fright idea was inspired by a similar event organized by Keep Saint Petersburg Local (both groups are connected to the American Independent Business Alliance network to share ideas and resources).
Media coverage for Food Fright was just a splash in the pond of coverage this group received in 2014 via radio, television, blogs, and print media, stemming from community interest in Local First Milwaukee’s events that also included the Buy Local Gift Fair, Grow Local Business, Move Your Money, Eat Local, and Shop Local campaigns. Andrew says their work, and the energy for localization, is expanding elsewhere in Southeastern Wisconsin.”
Rather than the familar “buy local” theme, Milwaukee First employs a “Shift Happens” campaign to draw out the importance and impact of locals shifting a portion of their spending from outside the area or at absentee-owned chains to local independenents. “Shift Happens is the overarching campaign we’re working on to bring awareness to spending habits,” says Andrew. The label is used thorughout their materials, on name tags at events, on social media, and even baseball shirts.
The Local First Milwaukee website urges visitors to sign a pledge to shift at least 10% more of their purchases to local retailers and restaurants.
“Locally owned businesses maintain Milwaukee’s style. Living locally isn’t just about where you spend your money. It’s also about how you live your life,” says Andrew. “We are planning a contest for February through April 2015 where we will ask businesses from outside and inside our organization to fill out a form pledging to shift some of their dollars to local businesses, and also give feedback about specific needs that they’d like to source locally and don’t currently. Our hope is that this will be a win for both members and outside businesses who want to actively engage local businesses.”
To keep the message to the community constant and appeal to its various audiences, the Shift Happens campaign is broken into four sub-campaigns: Grow Local Business (B2B focus), Move Your Money (Local financial institution focus), Eat Local, and Shop Local. The separate compontents help ensure all member businesses are being served through it, while helping community members recognize there’s more to “Local” living than buying produce from a farm or retail shopping.
Among their tools to help convey the importance of doing business locally, Local First Milwaukee commissioned the research firm Civic Economics to do a city specific multiplier effect study in 2013. The report indicated 44.1% of money spent with Milwaukee’s independent businesses recirculates throught the local economy, compared to just 13.6% of that spent at national chains. Having city-specific data helped the group convey the importance of their work to elected officials and economic development workers in the area.
Local First Milwaukee conducts an annual strategic planning meeting in October, before the fall and winter busy time distracts, to discuss and put goals in place for 1, 3 and 10 years in their future. The group is one of several organizations that participate in the American Independent Business Alliance’s Fiscal Sponsorship Program, which enables them to raise funds from foundations and individuals that require their contributions go to a 501c3 organization (and therefore are tax-deductible). Local First Milwaukee currently is using this program to earn and double a $10,000 challenge grantfrom the Kailo Fund, which will be used to advance community outreach in Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington, Waukesha, and Racine counties.Print This Post