How Communities Are Banding Together to Help Small Businesses
From grassroots organizers to innovative partnerships, community allies are helping neighborhood shops stay resilient.
When the pandemic hit last year, Melissa Manice knew that the small businesses in her hometown of Larchmont, New York would need a lot of help.
As the co-founder of One Larchmont, a nonprofit that helps preserve the town’s historic districts, Manice was intimately familiar with the local mom-and-pop shops that had shut down essentially overnight. Unless somebody found a way to support these beloved bookstores, clothing stores, and retail spaces, most of them would never reopen. So she got to work.
The story of what happened next in Larchmont is a reminder of how strong community allies can make all the difference for small businesses. Many have had to close their doors in the past 15 months: economists estimate that more than 130,000 small businesses have shuttered in the U.S. alone since March 2020. Others, however, managed to adapt with the help of neighbors, advisors, and organizations that steered them through a difficult path, delivering the resources they needed when they needed them most.
The power of community support
Larchmont, a small town about an hour’s drive north of New York City, is a place that Manice describes as “locally-minded and neighbor-driven.” She never doubted that her neighbors would want to help in a time of crisis, but she recognized they needed to act quickly.
Between April and July last year, One Larchmont raised almost $250,000 to help entrepreneurs stay afloat. It was enough money to cover expenses for more than 30 businesses while they were shut down. “We were trying to do as much good, as soon as possible,” Manice says. “All these businesses were like, ‘We can’t survive if we have no revenue and we’re closed for months on end.’”
As spring turned to summer, the group pivoted its campaign to help more than 20 restaurants offer outdoor dining. Donors underwrote the cost of new tables and chairs, while One Larchmont worked closely with the town government to streamline the permitting process. The campaign became such a success that the community also came together to cover the costs of heated outdoor dining for the wintertime. All told, volunteers contributed another $100,000 for the cause.
Larchmont is just one place where fundraising has been a powerful tool to support neighborhood stores. In Seattle, a grassroots aid group raised $900,000 for stores in the city’s Chinatown district. And in Los Angeles, the Little Toyko Community Council gave $100,000 in grants for community shops, many of which have been open for decades. Of course, fundraising isn’t always enough. Many small businesses also need institutional support to help them stay resilient in times of crisis.
Building coalitions to keep neighborhood shops alive
In Detroit, a city official named Charity Dean was laser-focused on saving small businesses when the pandemic began. Dean had been the director of Detroit’s Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity Department, but she was suddenly tasked with the city’s small business response. Her mandate was clear: do whatever you can to help.
Dean’s role illustrates the need for strong public-private partnerships in times of crisis. Working inside city government, she forged connections with powerful Detroit institutions that became valuable partners. Recognizing the restaurant industry’s need for support, Dean recruited Quicken Loans to fund a program called Feeding the Front Lines, which paid local restaurants more than $400,000 to cook 20,000 meals for health care workers. That success led her to help launch a coalition known as Detroit Means Business, which has raised more than $1 million from the likes of Ford and JPMorgan to assist shop owners navigating the pandemic.
Finding innovative ways to boost small businesses
Ultimately, these partnerships help local shops find creative ways to flourish long-term. Prior to the pandemic, Dean had helped spearhead a program that allowed Detroit residents to purchase abandoned, city-owned side lots for $100. Last winter, as temperatures dropped below freezing, a catering company took advantage of that offer to purchase a lot in East Detroit and transform it into an “igloo village,” where customers could dine safely and comfortably inside heated spaces. What had been an unused space became a popular, critically acclaimed restaurant.
“We were doing outdoor dining in the dead of winter in Detroit!” Dean says. “I don’t think that’s going to go away.”
These sorts of efforts aren’t unique to the United States. Around the world, similar coalitions have aided small businesses in the past year, encouraging owners to refresh what they’re doing with new and inventive ideas. The city council in York, England worked with advocacy groups to provide microgrants to 3,500 area stores. In Romania, where many small farms are cash-only, farmers took advantage of a partnership launched by Waze, Mastercard, and the nonprofit My Transylvania Association to promote their produce online and sell it via electronic payment. Thanks to this innovation, customers could find nearby farms easily, see what they were selling, and then safely make purchases.
Small business advocates going above and beyond to help
Starleen Van Buren, the director of a Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in Torrance, California, knows how to navigate bureaucratic systems. It’s literally her job: this past year, her role often meant teaching small business owners about the complex rules of relief aid, grants, and loans. But she’s gone above and beyond to also guide them through the financial turmoil of the pandemic.
When the owner of a local heating and air conditioning company was desperate for help with the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Van Buren knew that the funds would make the difference between protecting her employees’ jobs and shutting down her business — but only if the bank approved her application quickly. That’s when Van Buren stepped up.
The bank hadn’t been responding, so she went on LinkedIn, tracked down the operations manager, and then sent them an urgent message. “I said, ‘Can you please have someone fix this?’” Van Buren recalls. In almost no time at all, the business owner’s PPP application was approved and she got the money she needed.
This kind of behind-the-scenes-work is incredibly significant when multiplied at scale. When the American Business Immigration Coalition (ABIC) went door-to-door to help minority entrepreneurs apply for PPP loans, their campaign helped 219 local businesses get $8 million. Of course, the SBDC and ABIC are just two cases of many. In every community, in every state, organizations like these have been a crucial lifeline for small businesses.
Unlocking grassroots support for local stores
In the weeks and months to come, grassroots support could be the biggest game-changer of all for small businesses — more than fundraising, public-private partnerships, or the savviest financial advisor. If the past year has revealed anything, it’s that deep community ties can make the difference in tough times.
Building those ties isn’t easy, but entrepreneurs have plenty of tools at their disposal to spark grassroots backing. Location-based marketing is one especially effective way for small businesses to reach their neighbors. When Austin Moon, owner of Mojo Coffee in Liberty Hill, Texas, wanted to spread the word about his cafe, he used targeted ads to connect with local coffee lovers. “It has been a very, very valuable tool for us to get our name out there,” Moon says.
As some communities begin to gradually reopen, the hope is that small businesses will emerge even more innovative and resilient than before. Customers spent a record $20 billion on Small Business Saturday last November, a sign that there’s tremendous interest among shoppers to back their neighborhood businesses. Countless grassroots groups have organized to aid those efforts as well. Wherever you live, there’s almost certainly a directory available to help you find the shops where your dollars will matter most. You can even help by adding local businesses to the Waze Map so other drivers can easily spot them.
So the next time you’re going out to eat or shop, take an extra minute to choose local. Who knows? You may even discover a new favorite or two.