Who decides when to engage?
Before you dive in politically, taking a stance on an issue is a board’s decision. Staff certainly can research and make recommendations, however the decision to engage is the privilege of the board. Answering the following questions may help your board decide whether taking a stance on an issue is warranted:
- Does the issue impact independent businesses and to what degree?
- Does the issue fall within / impact our organization’s mission?
- What level of involvement will this require? Is it merely taking a position and issuing a media release, or do we need to engage with community members via presentations, forums / debates / lobbying, building a campaign around it? Do we have the capacity to take this on?
- What are the potential impacts to our organization — positive or negative? Is this issue potentially divisive for our members (if so, be sure to survey them before taking any position or action). Can our board comfortably take a position without member input?
- Who are our allies on this issue? Which organizations — how can we partner with them to maximize our impact? Which council members / legislators — how can we best help support them through the process?
Your board may want to implement decision-making criteria to help determine which issues deserve your group’s attention. The above questions provide a good framework.
Issue engagement may not always be your choice
While your IBA can choose issues to engage in, not all engaging issues will come to you by choice. Here are some examples:
- Other organizations may contact you to try to engage your group on an issue because they want to demonstrate broad interest.
- Media may seek your group’s position because they assume you’ve taken one or should be interested.
- City Council members or legislative offices may assume the same and deem independent business as a strong sector to have involved. Your group may have a lot to gain from doing so.
The political benefits of 501c6 tax-exempt status
Also be aware that if your organization has 501c6 tax-exempt status, you can both endorse candidates for public office and lobby with impunity. So, for example, your group could openly endorse candidates supporting issues that help your constituency. If you do not yet have 501c6 tax-exempt status, you can gain it through AMIBA’s 501c6 Group Exemption Program.
Metro Independent Business Alliance is a politically active group at the local and state levels. Their board adopted a political platform based on AMIBA’s legislative platform and modified it to meet most of their needs. It does not address more localized issues, however the questions above can help with that process. See Metro Independent Business Alliance’s Public Policy Platform. Metro IBA uses this in two ways:
- As a guideline for what specific issues they may endorse. The Public Policy Platform helps them weed out issues that some members may care about, but don’t directly impact locally owned businesses.
- If specific issues arise for which they have not taken a specific position. The Public Policy Platform provides them the latitude to speak to those issues that are consistent with the policy outlined in the Public Policy Platform.
The Austin Independent Business Alliance gathered citywide input to write a Local Business Manifesto to present to the City and generate local media attention. It resulted in a Resolution of support and other actions by their City Council. Learn more (member login may be required to view some resources).
Think Local First in Washington, DC hosts City Council Candidate Forums focusing largely on local business policy (as of 2018).