The Business Community:

Constituency Organizing

by Linda Lee Welch
The business community is one of the most overlooked constituencies in gay and lesbian community organizing. For many activists, the stereotypical image of business people as conservatives in pinstriped suits keeps us from approaching them for support. The reality is that the business community is just as diverse as the gay and lesbian community...and sometimes just as difficult to organize!

Organizing in the business community opens doors to new sources of income, marketing expertise, different perspectives on how your community operates, outlets for sales of buttons and bumper stickers and a potential educational forum which is difficult to equal.

In considering how to organize in your own business community, answer the following questions:

  1. What is my resistance to working in this community? What do I fear the most?

  2. Who are the business leaders in my community? Talk with the Chamber of Commerce, the Visitors Bureau, Local and State Government, the Hotel and Restaurant Associations, the museum development director, and any large business owner you know.

  3. Of the business leaders in this community, which ones have the most influence with their peers? Who in the campaign has some connection with these people? What are their personal positions on this issue?

  4. Who would be willing to be involved with or lend their name to organizing the business community?

  5. What do I want from the business community? Fundraising? In-kind contributions of office space, phone banking locations, equipment, advertising? Volunteer recruitment? Workplace presentations on the issue? An outlet for sales of merchandise? Their name and logo on a signature ad?

  6. Who has the best list of business owners in this community?

  7. Who is the best person to invite a group of business people together to talk about their involvement in this campaign?

  8. Who should be invited to this meeting?

  9. Where should the meeting be held?

  10. Who will facilitate the meeting and what will be on the agenda?

As in most communities, business people respond best to their peers. They will expect to be addressed, at least once, by the campaign manager and/or chair. A good time for this is at the initial meeting. Invite the campaign manager and steering committee chair to give a State of the Campaign" report and to introduce the staff person or key volunteer who will be assigned to work with the business community. This gives the committee the message that they matter enough to the campaign to warrant the attention of the people in charge." People in the business community are used to getting their questions answered and will want to know about campaign strategy and polling information. Periodically invite either the campaign manager or the chair to give an update. Without revealing campaign secrets you can keep this group informed and up to date on changes and progress in the campaign.

Don't be intimidated by this community. Many of them have very strong social consciences and want to be involved in your issue. Ask for what you want! They have to make difficult business decisions regarding their involvement in your campaign and most will do whatever they can to support you. If you've asked for a campaign message on the local grocery chain's marquee and they've said no...accept this! They will be more inclined to give what they can if they know that you understand their limitations. For many business owners this will be their first involvement in the struggle for gay and lesbian civil rights. Respect the stage they're in in their public coming out process. You are asking them to take personal and professional risks and only they can evaluate their readiness to take them. Most anti-gay and lesbian groups threaten boycotts of businesses they consider to be pro-gay and members of your business community need to measure the weight of that threat in their decision making.

In working with this community (as with any other!) be respectful of their time and recognize the value of their contribution. Rather than asking for too little or too much, facilitate a discussion where they choose the level of their involvement. You may go in asking them to raise $10,000 when they were thinking they could raise $100,000. Be clear about your needs and allow them to set their own goals. Go back to them when you have additional requests. In most business communities, if the people you have at your meeting don't have what you need, they know where to get it!

If you empower the business community by allowing them to set their own goals and level of participation, they will become invested in your campaign and expand their level of involvement as they get excited about being part of a larger cause. They will come up with new ways they can help that may never occur to you if you go in with a narrowly focused agenda. Remember that community organizing is about empowerment and facilitating other people's leadership.

Business owners are already leaders in your community - give them the opportunity to provide leadership in some segment of your campaign and they will influence their peers as well as thousands of their own employees.

The Business Breakfast -- A Case Study

During the summer months, before the November election, we convened a group of business people to discuss their involvement in fundraising for the No on 9 Campaign. We asked people to attend a one-time only meeting to determine their level of interest. We invited representatives from the Visitor's Bureau, the Hotel and Lodging Association, a public relations firm, a banker, the executive director of an orchestra, a developer, the owner of an insurance company, a large bookstore owner, and several other business people.

They had set their own goals for fundraising - about four times what we had anticipated asking them to raise and they were successful in reaching half their fundraising goal. The committee decided that the best way to involve the community was to invite business people to a breakfast to hear about the campaign and how they could be involved.

We recruited a host committee and included people we thought would receive the most positive response from their peers in the business community. Members included a rabbi and his wife, a former governor, a large urban property owner, the vice-president of a large grocery chain, the owner of a nationally known book store, a business owner and philanthropist for whom a concert hall is named, and the owner of a very visible real estate firm.

All these people had to do was lend their name to our invitation and personally invite a few people to attend the breakfast. We sent out invitations to hundreds of business owners through lists provided by an industry association and the chamber of commerce. The invitation was simple and inexpensive. Printed in black ink on grey card stock, the outside read, "If You're Concerned About Oregon's Business Future..." The inside completed, "...You Must Attend The 'No on 9' Ballot Measure Business Breakfast." It then listed the hosts and gave the details about where, when, how to R.S.V.P., etc. A message appearing below the general information read, "This measure would make Oregon the first state to mandate discrimination. Don't Let That Happen."

The committee and other volunteers made follow up telephone calls to anyone who did not R.S.V.P. Over 100 people attended the breakfast including prominent business owners who had never before taken a public stand on gay and lesbian civil rights issues.

The breakfast was paid for by a business owner as part of his contribution, so the only cost incurred was for printing of materials. We had small conservative buttons designed for this group - a black number 9 within the universal red no" symbol. On each chair we placed a packet of information geared solely to the business community including a sheet on why Measure 9 was bad for business in Oregon. We also included general campaign information, a donor card specifically for the business community, and envelope and a pen.

We served a continental breakfast beginning at 7:30 a.m. and held the program from 8:00- 8:30 a.m. By the time the program began, we had a standing room only crowd that included many more than those who had made reservations. We had several enlarged charts placed around the room with the text of the ballot measure and the fundraising goals for the campaign.

The program was introduced by the former governor who is also a well-respected business person. He talked about why this was so important to him and to the business community in Oregon. He introduced the host committee. The campaign manager gave a short presentation on the issue and the campaign and introduced other campaign volunteers and staff. Several members of the host committee gave testimonials" about their involvement. There was a brief, moving speech made by a much-loved member of the business community who had recently been told he was dying of cancer and had just a short time to live. He indicated that he was putting the last bit of energy he had into defeating the ballot measure and that he and his wife had decided to give $1,000 to the campaign.

The former governor made the fundraising pitch which was followed by silence to allow people time to fill in their pledge cards. Members of the business committee moved through the crowd and collected pledge cards. As this happened, a member of the committee recognized some of the contributions - $15,000 from one business owner, $5,000 from another - to encourage donors to come forward with their checks.

After the breakfast, follow up calls were made to people who did not attend or did not pledge. More than $60,000 was raised as a result of the breakfast and by the end of the campaign, the business community raised almost $100,000. Many of the business people became more involved in the campaign by appearing in commercials, providing phone banking space, speaking at rallies, and soliciting their peers.

This constituency had the drive and the passion to make a difference. With a minimal amount of staff support and encouragement, they were able to make a substantial contribution to the campaign.


For more information or to request a complete Fight the Right Action Kit, call NGLTF at 202-332-6483, TTY 202-332-6219.