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Leverage Political Power to Champion Your Business

Us CapitalEven though small businesses are this country’s most prolific jobs generators, that fact doesn’t automatically translate into political power. 

While being small definitely has its advantages, one of its greatest disadvantages is that  individual small business owners more often than not don’t have the time or the funds to devote to establishing a national, state, or even local political voice. 

“You don’t get the busloads of small business owners showing up at state capitols because they’re too busy running their businesses,” says Mike Elmendorf, New York state director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), the nation’s leading trade association of small business with a presence in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.  “They’re not professional lobbyists nor do individual owners have the resources to hire a lobbyist.”

That’s why there are broad-based groups like the NFIB (www.nfib.com), and industry specific groups like the NGCOA and its state chapters.  There is power and strength in numbers, plus these groups have the expertise and the time to pursue issues of interest to individual members. 

“Owners need to hang together so they don’t hang separately,” emphasizes George Hilliard, executive director of the Myrtle Beach Area Golf Course Owners Association. 

Belonging to a trade association is a good first step for owners to become legislatively connected, but Chava McKeel, senior manager of information and public policy of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), says that individual members still must keep themselves informed about the issues and be willing to be part of the process by testifying at meetings or providing written testimony, particularly at the local level. 

“There is a lot of truth in the saying that all politics is local,” she says.  “Most decisions made affecting golf courses are made locally.”

Organizations must take advantage of their size by developing the potential for legislative clout.  According to Hilliard, that can be done by developing a “game plan” encompassing both lobbying and public relations. 

“You’ve got to spend a little money and hire a lobbyist,” he says.  “The lobbyist doesn’t need to be working for the group on a full time basis, but it does need to be someone, usually an attorney, who is well versed on your specific issues and who has well-established legislative relationships and contacts.” 

Elemendorf says that’s exactly what the small business owner gets by joining the NFIB.  “It’s not good enough to get involved only when a problem comes up,” he says.  “You’ve got to be seen and heard – and available – 24/7.  In addition, there are so many actions being taken by legislators and regulators – many of which are obscure – that individuals and even some organizations can’t hope to keep up with everything.”

McKeel agrees: “Legislative participation is a continuous process that must be proactive rather than reactive.”  Adds Hilliard, “That’s what gives you clout.”

In addition to a lobbyist, Hilliard says an association should explore engaging a public relations firm that can go beyond the legislative arena and inform the public about issues. 

“Golf course owners need to dispel the myth of being caretakers of a sport for the wealthy,” Hilliard says.  “The media play upon that image and we have to be more aggressive in putting the proper spin on who we really are.  Public relations firms help in drafting and placing letters to the editor, meeting with editorial staffs, pitching stories, and training spokespersons.”

McKeel says inviting lawmakers and regulators to a golf course to see firsthand how it is responsibly managed is excellent proactive public relations.  The Florida GCSA recently teamed with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to develop a publication on best management practices for golf courses.  “Partnering with government has been helpful on several of our issues involving pesticides, fertilizers, and water,” she says.

To assure that organizations stay on the top of the issues, member surveys help in setting legislative and public relations goals.  “The NFIB polls its members several times annually to determine those issues that are most important, and to help in developing message points,” Elmendorf says. 

In addition, the NFIB meets with its members 2-3 times annually to give them a sense of involvement and ownership in the legislative process. 

Every other year, it also holds a nationwide summit in Washington, D.C. to give members a chance to meet with federal lawmakers and regulators.  The NGCOA participates with the rest of the golf industry in the annual National Golf Day to do the same thing. 

On the state level, the Michigan Golf Course Owners Association (MGCOA) gives members the opportunity to meet one-on-one with elected officials during its Government Affairs Day, held every year usually in March. 

“To do all of these things would be almost impossible for individual owners,” Hilliard says.  “While we are all fierce competitors, we need to realize the value of working together.”

Such collaboration is helpful to golf course owners beyond legislative matters.  He says it’s particularly effective in partnering with hotels, online tee-time reservation services, and other golf-related or hospitality services as well.

Another collaborative tactic is allying with groups that have similar issues, but cut across several industries.  McKeel says the GCSAA encourages the creation of “green industry” alliances that include the lawn care and sod producing industries. 

Sometimes – not always – it’s pragmatic for course owners to stay in the background and allow others to act as a spokesperson because of the public’s perception of course owners as being wealthy landowners.  Dick Armey, former majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives says in his book, Armey’s Axioms, “If you insist on center stage, you get the tomatoes.” 

Linda Rogers, a member of the Indiana Golf Course Owners Association and a NGCOA board member, found that out when she did a TV interview on property taxes.  Afterwards she received nasty comments about wealthy golf course owners. 

As a result, in an effort to get the city of South Bend to divest itself of a golf course later on, she enlisted the support of anti-tax groups, banquet hall operators, restaurants, health clubs, and developers. 

“There is value in partnering with as many allies as possible,” says Hilliard.

A political action committee (PAC) is also an option for organizations.  “It’s another tool in the tool box as long as an organization has the ability to administer it,” says McKeel. 

On the federal level, there are two types: affiliated and independent.  An affiliated PAC is established by an already existing organization.  Money is given voluntarily by members and used for various political purposes.  The independent PAC is officially independent of any existing organization and usually focuses on a specific issue or advocate a particular ideology.

The MGCOA set up a PAC separate from the chapter and administered by members of its government affairs committee.  During the 2008 election cycle, it spent between $12,000 and $20,000.

Small businesses became significant jobs creators by understanding the value of working together when practical and taking advantage of every opportunity for growth.  Involvement in the legislative process is certainly one of those opportunities that has proven effective provided it’s proactive, ongoing, and targeted.


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