Madison, Wisconsin is a city perched on an isthmus, a narrow strip of land with water on either side. The highest point is its Capitol, visible from all over the city. With four lakes nearby, an abundance of green spaces, and a downtown university, Madison is a city designed to draw in not only the eye but residents and visitors themselves.

“It’s just a beautiful, beautiful city. Sometimes I forget until I go somewhere else—what a gem we have here in the Midwest.”

-Colin Murray, Executive Director, Dane Buy Local

So it’s no surprise that the goal to think local first is alive and well there. Dane Buy Local, which serves the entire county, focuses its mission on three major themes: collaborate, educate, and promote.

Just outside the city itself, there are a variety of smaller communities, each with their own small business ecosystem. So it’s essential for Dane Buy Local to work closely with nearby chambers of commerce and other relevant business groups.

Together they amplify existing efforts and draw on untapped strengths. Their county-wide holiday shopping passport is a good example, stirring up festive local support during a critical time for small business owners each year.

It’s through efforts like the passport that Dane Buy Local embraces the education part of its mission, helping the public better understand the benefits of buying local. Educational resources are also made available for member businesses. Business owners regularly gather for breakfast to share ideas and convene for specialized learning opportunities, like sessions on the latest social media marketing strategies.

When it comes to promotion, Dane Buy Local has a radio program, digital marketplace, and both online and printed directories. The physical directories continue to be surprisingly popular, with 25,000 copies distributed annually and more in demand.

According to Colin Murray, who has been Dane Buy Local’s Executive Director for the past 10 years, one thing that has greatly benefitted the nonprofit is the engagement of government entities. Dane County was one of the first to become a Dane Buy Local member, and now there are seven participating government institutions.

During the pandemic, Dane Buy Local received and administered three rounds of government grant funding provided by Dane County, resulting in over 28 million dollars that went to struggling local businesses. Murray attributes the profound outcomes to the strong relationship his organization already had with the County.

But that hasn’t been the only initiative keeping Dane Buy Local busy over the last several years. Simultaneously, Murray and his team launched a program called Soups On! Area eateries crafted and froze big batches of soup weekly, which Dane Buy Local then stored in a rented commercial kitchen that was going unused. Madison residents ordered up online and picked up their soup via a drive-through arrangement.

The soup was relatively inexpensive to prepare and proceeds from the program went directly back to the restaurants, adding to their income during what felt like an impossible time. In addition, locals were given the option to purchase and donate soup to help feed hungry neighbors. A remarkable number of people did, and with all sales combined, Soups On! sold over 83,000 quarts of soup from November 2021 to March 2022 (its second season).

With more than 30 restaurants wanting to participate, Dane Buy Local decided to rotate, featuring about 15 to 20 each week. The model was so popular that they’ve since reused it for special events, like Pi Day, during which they partnered with local bakeries and sold 150 pies in a single day.

Murray isn’t sure yet, but he sees the Soups On! approach as something that could be expanded in the future. With so many new members having joined Dane Buy Local as a result of the recent grant program, he wants to ensure the network continues to evolve.

“How do we keep those businesses engaged and make sure they get the value out of being a member now that the grant program is done?”

-Colin Murray, Executive Director, Dane Buy Local

Murray is always looking for additional ways to serve the business community without stepping on the toes of other nonprofits already doing amazing work. (Madison has the highest number of nonprofits per capita in the country.)

In the meantime, he’s also carefully considering a personal challenge, being just plain tired. Having led Dane Buy Local for the last decade and manned the helm during COVID-19, he’s now looking toward retirement in the next few years but wants to ensure strong leadership will be there for the next chapter.

Fortunately, the organization is in a good financial place and has a stellar board, so while it’s hard to begin shifting into a less active role, Murray is confident there are great things to come. He’s looking forward to watching the next leader who will help grow Dane Buy Local and take it to new and exciting places.

Our “Hello! We Are AMIBA” series gathers stories, best practices, strengths, challenges, and equity initiatives from AMIBA Members and Partners.  As an alliance, we are AMIBA!  Learn more about the American Independent Business Alliance.

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