A Model Network

BALLE - Business Alliance for Local Living Economies

Remember when global was all the rage?  Back in 2005, the future was paved with offshore outsourcing and continent-crossing supply chains, and Thomas L. Friedman’s The World Is Flat topped every bestseller list.  “When I was growing up, my parents told me, 'Finish your dinner. People in China and India are starving,'” wrote Friedman, “I tell my daughters, 'Finish your homework. People in India and China are starving for your job.'”

The Lure of Local

Years before this pre-recession high point for globalism, two entrepreneurs in the northeast—Judy Wick, founder Philadelphia’s White Dog Café, and Laury Hammel, owner of Boston’s Longfellow Health Clubs—created a community of business owners committed to choosing local resources and building local markets.  They wrote a localist manifesto that envisioned a new sustainable economy rooted in our own backyards.  They called their network the Business Alliance for Local Livable Economies (BALLE.)  They understood the lure of the local, and they knew that consumers would, too. 

BALLE now encompasses eighty local business networks and 30,000 innovators across the United States and Canada, and in the 13 years since its founding, local has regained its allure, due in no small part to BALLE and its members.

BALLE envisions “a global system of human-scale, interconnected local economies that function in harmony with local ecosystems to meet the basic needs of all people, support just and democratic societies, and foster joyful community life.” 

With such a lofty vision, it helps to have clear goals and focused strategies for reaching them.  As the hub of a growing network of local businesses, business networks and local economy funders, BALLE aims to amplify and accelerate the new economy that their community is creating.  The organization has three high impact strategies that frame its work:  connecting leaders, sharing solutions and driving investment.

Connecting Leaders, Sharing Solutions
“The two best ways that we connect people are through our membership program and our annual conference,” explains Jill Epner, BALLE’s Director of Community Engagement.  BALLE’s approach to membership engagement has shifted over time, refocusing the organization’s offerings.  “Similar to a lot of networks, we really offered a lot of benefits,” Epner says.  The website bears evidence of this – dozens of webinars, toolkits, videos, research papers – all original content developed by the organization.  This information is crucial for many people entering the localist frame of mind, and it serves the organization’s second strategy—spreading solutions—well. However, surveys of BALLE members identified a deeper need.

“They want to connect with each other more than anything,” says Epner.  “They feed off each other… They know the questions that are keeping them up at night.”  This realization created a shift away from being a content-creator to being a content-enabler. “It’s not BALLE doing our work on the ground to get them answers.  It’s BALLE providing the container and the environment so that they can find answers from their local economy peers from across the country and North America.”

Conference as Container
The annual conference is one of the best containers for this ferment of ideas.  In addition to the dozens of workshops and panel discussions, the conference features a Back-of-the-Napkin Business Plan Competition.  Participants draft perhaps the briefest business plans ever on standard-sized dinner napkins and are judged by a jury of funders and entrepreneurs.  The feedback they receive is valuable, as is the exposure. 

Donna Isaacs, a Louisiana-based localist who led the 2012 winning team, used the victory as a springboard for the project—a food hub, farmers’ market and culinary incubator based in a neighborhood with high unemployment and limited access to healthy food.  She found mentors at the conference who refined the plan, enabling her to establish an advisory board, find a site, and kick off a crowdfunding campaign to begin raising money to purchase and renovate the building.

Another food-based business plan won the 2013 contest.  The winning idea, Gro-operative, is a worker-owned farming co-operative that will turn an abandoned factory in Buffalo, NY into a hub of food-related business ventures—from beer brewing to mushroom growing to honey harvesting.  Mike Zak formed a collaboration to develop the idea at BALLE’s conference, and now he and his local partners are well into the planning and development stages for this much-needed boost to Buffalo’s economy and the local food movement.

The 2014 BALLE conference this June 11 – 13 in Oakland, CA may inspire even more food-focused enterprises.  “We’re focusing on the six most urgent, exciting, and important topic areas happening in localism, and we’re going to go deep on those,” Epner says.  “The new food economy is going to be one of those conversations.”  An in-depth panel discussion with national experts is planned, with analysis of case studies from across the country.

This focus on food and farm issues is not new to BALLE.  Its members include food hubs and cooperatives as well as many businesses, such as restaurants, closely tied to local farms.  Moreover, several of BALLE’s Local Economy Fellows are part of the sustainable agriculture movement, including Malik Yakini, Executive Director of the Detroit Black Food Security Network; Nikki Henderson Silvestri, Executive Director of Green for All; and D’Artagnan Scorza, Executive Director/CEO of the Social Justice Learning Institute, Urban Agriculture Enterprises, Inc. in Los Angeles, CA. 

Fellows as Levers of Change
“Our fellowship program – that’s really where our lever of change is,” says Epner of the competitive 18-month fellowship established in 2011.  To be selected, fellows must be innovative leaders working within a localist context, as well as “connectors”—people who represent, convene, and influence whole communities of local businesses.  Connectors can spread knowledge and adapt solutions widely.  Within the first six months of the fellowship’s pilot year, fellows replicated six programs and raised more than $500,000 in new funds as they shared program proposals and made introductions for each other. 

The 2013-2014 cohort is just as collaborative.  Through the facilitated BALLE fellowship meetings held each quarter, Malik Yakini, Nikki Henderson Silvestri and D’Artagnan Scorza noted that funding seemed capped a certain level for groups working in historically underserved areas—a level that enabled programming but stymied long-range planning and growth.  They also recognized that the food justice movement in these communities was resolutely local—its strength rooted in local culture, history, and people.  The three fellows and their key staff convened in Detroit last fall to lay the groundwork for a collaborative that will build upon local strengths to address nationwide funding and operational issues.  They plan to extend the collective beyond their three nonprofits to include community-based organizations across the country.  “The fellows… they are our tipping point,” Epner says.

Financing the New Economy
The limited funding available to local initiatives is one factor that Scorza, Silvestri and Yakini’s collaboration addresses that concerns most BALLE members.  This is why driving investment is one of the three strategies that guide BALLE’s efforts.

“We do a lot of work in community capital,” says Epner, referring to the type of alternative financing that aims to transform and strengthen the prosperity of our communities and the lives of the people within them.  BALLE encourages investment in local businesses by monitoring and quantifying the impact that these companies have on neighborhoods, counties, and regional communities.  The organization then shares its data and findings with government agencies, financial institutions, and businesses. 

BALLE also uses its online learning community to share financial solutions that are working and replicable.  The organization released a Community Capital Toolkit in January that includes seven webinars and a 20-page guide.  It is available online—free for anyone seeking to understand and access this underutilized resource.  “We need to finance this new economy,” says Epner. “You can have the best ideas in the world, but if you have no financial backing for them… that’s a real challenge.”