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The Best Little Advocacy Group in America

NAWBO, with its assertive marketing and effective consensus building, could best represent small business in Washington.
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Looking for a model of the sort of national group that could best represent your company's interests among policymakers? Look no further

From time to time as you walked through the hallways at the state conferences leading up to the 1986 White House Conference on Small Business, you'd hear shouts of "NAWBO!" Those shouts were a call to action, the stories go, summoning members of the National Association of Women Business Owners who were attending concurrent sessions to rejoin ranks and vote as a bloc on issues they had agreed upon ahead of time.

NAWBO was then (and still is) the model of what a small-company advocacy group should be. Not only were its members an impressively organized vocal force making use of the latest technological gadgetry to keep in close communication, but they were also incredibly savvy at marketing themselves. By using every tactic they could think of to keep their consistent message in front of fellow conference attendees and policymakers, they outshone the established lobbyists that for years had done business by backroom politicking and riding herd on rules committees. At the 1986 conference the establishment was not prepared for NAWBO, an advocacy group that managed to broadcast itself onto the national agenda by assertively behaving like the tough-minded, relentless crowd it represented -- chiefly, owners of small companies.

Just how powerful NAWBO had become was clear in the months following that conference. One sign was the passage of the Women's Business Ownership Act of 1988 (symbolically numbered HR 5050), which broadened access to credit markets for women, established a three-year, $10-million training and technical-support initiative aimed at woman business owners, and created a National Women's Business Council to provide long-term support to woman-owned businesses. NAWBO, which had begun pushing for the legislation at the 1986 conference, is widely credited with getting the bill drafted, introduced, and passed.

Not bad for a group that operates out of donated office space in Silver Spring, Md., has a full-time staff of three and an annual budget of $450,000, and reports a scant 4,000 members. Compare that with the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which boasts a staggering 600,000 members (with an average of five employees and $250,000 in annual revenues, which mirrors NAWBO's membership profile), a full-time staff of 225 (50 of whom are state lobbyists), and an annual budget of $52 million.

NFIB argues that NAWBO's influence is out of kilter for a group of its meager proportions. Forgive me for saying so, but that's just plain hoo-ha. Here are two groups that represent portions of the small-business universe, and one takes the other to task for doing exactly what we at Inc. as well as countless crackerjack strategy consultants and management gurus have been advising small-company owners to do for years: Use every guerrilla marketing tactic you can think of. Make yourself appear larger and more established than you are if it works to get your message across. Make use of the latest technology and information-management systems you can get your hands on. Be quick to take action. And in a world of limitless options and limited resources, choose your focus and stick to it.

That last point is interesting. NFIB prides itself on directly polling its members on issues rather than using committees or its board of directors to set policy. NAWBO, however, places responsibility for consensus building and issue raising on volunteer members of committees. You often come away with the feeling that, perhaps because of its sheer size, NFIB is unable in its exhaustive studies to come up with the one or two really important issues on its members' minds, while NAWBO leaders seem able to take an accurate pulse with a handful of phone calls. And NAWBO seems to do so while patronizing its members' businesses when it's clear those businesses can fill a need.

Every special-interest group catering to small business should take note: NAWBO works because it behaves like the core constituency it represents.

"Women's business groups were the model of organization during the 1986 conference," says Michael Roush, chief Senate lobbyist for NFIB, "much to the chagrin of some of us."

So with the 1995 White House Conference on Small Business coming up, what is NFIB doing to make sure its constituency gets its representational voice heard? For starters it's meeting with the conference organizers to get assurances that there will not be a repeat of the 1986 conference. Roush says he's been reassured that "rules are being written by the White House conference" that will keep any small group from getting a disproportionate voice. Exactly what you'd expect a large corporation to do to stem the tide of small businesses eating away at its market share: tie it up in regulations.

Don't get me wrong. NAWBO is as concerned as NFIB that, as late as February, no clear rules were set for the state conferences that are slated to begin next month. For NAWBO, though, the concern is not so much about the rules-fixing problems of the past; the delay is preventing it from getting its well-organized efforts going full throttle.

But make no mistake: NAWBO is ready for the conference. To communicate with one another in the months leading up to the state conferences, many NAWBO members subscribed to a nationwide voice-mail system sold by one of its members' companies.

"First I set up each of the 15 board members across the country with a local Voice-Tel number," says Barbara Kasoff, whose Detroit company sells the voice-mail system. "Now our national president can get messages out to 300 members in seconds. We use it for nominations, conferences, training issues.

"In 1986 we succeeded through communication, too," says Kasoff. "Now we're going to use voice mail and mobile phones as well. We're going to be everywhere. It's a secret weapon that's making us a powerful group. We can use it to build a very powerful power base."

There you have it. Now Washington and trade groups large and small know exactly what's in NAWBO's arsenal, which it plans to launch at the state, regional, and national White House conferences. So why am I so confident that NAWBO with its small numbers and limited resources will still manage to elude those who are trailing behind in getting their issues heard? For NAWBO members, the 1986 conference was midwife to the birth of a newfound political power base. By last spring NAWBO's national president was receiving daily briefings from the White House after having met at least three times there with the Clinton administration. With reports of at least 5.4 million woman-owned businesses (that's 28% of all businesses) in the United States, surely Clinton's people and politicians throughout the country see backing woman-owned businesses as a no-lose proposition. Undoubtedly, those policymakers will be keeping a close eye on NAWBO at the 1995 White House conference. So should we all.

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Jeffrey L. Seglin is an editor at large at Inc.

Last updated: May 1, 1994




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