Building relationships with businesses and organisationsMay 10th, 2012 2 comments
Building sustainability and resilience into your local economy requires, among other things, good collaborative relationships with the local business community. Creating shared goals will accelerate results. This point is obvious and, at first glance, should pose no great challenge. After all, we’re all part of the same community and in this together, right? Most likely, members of your TI are also local business owners too, and you have connections to schools, clubs, churches, pubs, the gym and so on. But dive in a little deeper, and the challenge becomes slightly more complex.
Who owns and operates the businesses in your community? They may be local folks, or people who live in the next town. Or they may be owned locally, but managed by commuters from out of town, or vice versa. Depending on level of connection to the local community, loyalties and affinities may vary.
With chains or franchises, owners or managers may be entirely unknown and unreachable and have no local connections at all. If business owners don’t live in the community, how can they become a part of the process? People whose children attend the same school, who share a few beers at the pub, may have different priorities and attitudes when it comes to their business and may act quite differently in that context.
Regardless where a company’s decision makers may reside, the way they make decisions presents another set of factors to take on board. The economic logic that governs most business activity also shapes the relationships that form with outside organisations.
So it’s helpful to ask yourself, what are the objectives of the prospective relationship? What are you offering that they need (the value proposition)? What are the costs and benefits to both parties? What role do you want them to play?
How do they work?
While these questions help to define content, you need to know a bit about their business culture. This will inform your communication style, dress, how events/meetings are run, appropriate topics for conversation and so on. Should you use Powerpoint, or a whiteboard? Send something in writing before? Be casual or informal in style? Meet at their office or the pub? Wear a suit?
Solid business relationships begin with shared understanding of where each party is coming from – goals and objectives, how they operate and even the language they speak. There needs to be something to gain for everyone, and you need to start with where they are today.
Beginning with an understanding of “the business” frame of reference will help you communicate effectively, solicit support for projects, win proposals to deliver services like an Energy Resilience Assessment, or embark on an ongoing collaboration. But what about the Transition frame of reference, which can be quite different from the business one? How can you help businesses come to an understanding of where your Transition group is coming from, which can appear pretty radical?
There’s a growing set of resources to help businesses, or any organisation for that matter, learn about Transition, especially in the context of transitioning to a new economy – these will be shared here as we develop them and/or find them.
[Note we are just developing a short video and generic presentation that helps explain Transition to businesses and organisations, it will be uploaded here ASAP - please send us things you have found useful too].
It may be more effective to develop your own presentation using information most relevant to your purpose. For example, introducing the concept of the Transition Enterprise might prove helpful in discussing resilience and sustainability within a community context. Reviewing the general TN principles and ingredients like this one may be useful too.
Learning from other TIs
Some TIs already have experience in developing relationships with the business community. A survey identified several factors contributing to success in engaging existing local businesses.
The most influential factor noted was an “existing good relationship”, closely followed by “informal conversation”, “having a key ally in the organisation”, “access to senior management”, and “the organisation already interested in/doing it”. Respondents reported that good communications tools (such as powerpoint presentations) were at least fairly influential.
Here’s more responses from the survey…
The importance of the relationship
Existing good relationship with the organisation, friendship connections and informal connections were all identified as helpful – preferably built up over several years. If these are not possible, an introduction to the organisation from a trusted third party can help.
Advice: “Work with businesses from inside out – they’re just people. Relationship is key and must come first. Rational argument and the business case comes at end of engagement process”
Tactics: “Initial phone call, then face-to-face meeting, then, perhaps, an event for all businesses within a sector who can supply each other, probably via an established business organisation, e.g., chamber of commerce.”
Build credibility step by step
1) Get to know businesses and build trust by working with them on other projects supported by the local authority, such as a shop local or greening business campaign.
2) Launch your own project. For example, “Love Lewes” re-usable cotton shopping bag represented a good project to start with in that town. Bags were sold in shops. Retailers got interested in the issues and could see impact on their bottom line. Or start a local currency like the Bristol Pound, Brixton Pound or Stroud Pound.
3) Start conversations on the most accessible topic, such as locally-sourced food, before moving into broader and deeper conversations about sustainable food – how animals are reared, how food is produced, the reliance on oil etc.
4) Talk to businesses about what other similar companies have done, such as sponsoring a gardening wall planner, or story-writing competition, perhaps.
5) Partner with other organisations that are well connected into public and private sectors such as a local further education college, green groups etc.
6) Join the local Chamber of Commerce and attend their events, ask to present. Invite members to TI events (e.g. monthly TI meetings on particular business topic) through their monthly newsletter. The Chamber of Commerce can be a useful marketing channel. Hold a business summit event with high profile speakers if you can, for example, Rob Hopkins and Patrick Holden as speakers and Theresa May as Chair! This applies to other organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses, local networking groups and so on.
Have conversations that have impact
1) Success factors in conversations, identified by Transition Initiatives, included having access to senior management and having experienced and credible speakers within the TI, for example people from business backgrounds.
2) Idea: Invite prominent people to a conversation supper on a vision for the future – free local sustainably sourced meal, relaxed atmosphere with discussion.
3) Show peak oil video featuring leaders from well-known companies [got a good one? Please send it to us]. Here’s a list of some peak oil videos and there’s a simple intro below by decyphersmc (though as Richard Heinberg said “I think it’s pretty unclear whether we’re right at peak oil, or just about past it, or just about to get there”.)
Help your message land on fertile soil
1) It helps if an organisation is already interested in or working on a “green” agenda, and is already in communication with “early adopters” (see Innovation and Organisational Change).
2) Seek relationships with individuals in the organisation who can act as catalyst or champion – perhaps they already have a clear interest in Transition.
3) Tailor information so that it is specific to where an organisation is at.
4) Show clear tangible benefits for the business of engaging with Transition.
1) Start with the business benefit or opportunity before explaining what Transition is e.g., talk about lowering their risk to rising energy prices and opportunities for new services/products, rather than perils of climate change; see things from the businesses perspective and keep communication positive. Avoid being critical or judgmental.
2) Maintain a general public profile in the locality through displays in empty shops, events, stalls on high street, etc. and engage with local press to talk about issues relevant to business, e.g., peak oil and rising costs.
3) Materials need to present a well argued position, and examples of other organisations already doing it. Providing resources for the organisation to use to build the case internally is helpful.
Credits: Image source: Stonework by dan
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