Advocating For Main Street: A Conversation With National Small Business Association President Todd McCracken
The past year showed why sound public policy is needed to support Main Street. From the New Deal to the Paycheck Protection Program, laws and programs have helped small business weather crises and legislation in between has spurred entrepreneurship. Even more than ever, the past year showed why sound public policy is needed to support Main Street.
Our economy is beginning to reopen thanks in part to Covid-19 vaccines, but it may also take small businesses longer to recover than larger ones. Some, especially those who primarily have customers overseas, may even need additional support. Legislation to support and rebuild Main Street in the coming months will be critical.
As President of the National Small Business Association (NSBA), Todd McCracken directs all activities of the country’s oldest small business advocacy-oriented association. He became president of NSBA in 1997, having been with the association since 1988.
I recently connected with Todd to discuss the NSBA’s efforts and the impact of Covid-19 on small businesses. I appreciate him taking the time to speak with me and below is a summary of our conversation.
Rhett Buttle: As the nation’s first small business advocacy organization, what types of policies has the NSBA successfully advocated for that have lifted up Main Streets across the country?
Todd McCracken: The National Small Business Association emerged as the first and leading advocate for the small-business community from a time of crisis. The country was still in the grip of the Great Depression at our 1937 founding, but small businesses also were struggling to deal with the policies and regulations of an increasingly involved federal government. Those twin challenges—promoting economic growth and ensuring that governmental policies are supportive and not overbearing—remain the core of our work. We are proud to have helped create systemic guardrails within government that ensure the small business voice is heard within government. We helped create the Small Business Administration’s (SBA’s) Office of Advocacy, and we were at the forefront in arguing for the Regulatory Flexibility Act, which created mechanisms for small-business concerns to be uniquely considered. We have been the small business voice on every national debate affecting small business: increasing access to lending and credit, lowering health insurance costs, reducing the complexity of the federal tax system, and improving access to high-quality employees.
Rhett Buttle: How has the Covid-19 impacted American small businesses and what types of policies are needed for Main Street to re-emerge stronger?
Todd McCracken: The impact of the pandemic has been both widespread and highly targeted, depending on business type and location. It has been incredibly sad to see too many small businesses needlessly forced to close. In fact, just one-third of small businesses have stated they are very confident they will fully recover from the pandemic and economic downturn. But I also have been extremely proud to see the resilience, ingenuity, and innovation of the small business community on full display, and I am optimistic that those characteristics can help us create an even stronger economy for us all.
There are some key ways that government can help. First, this period has pointed out the importance of improving our broadband infrastructure to allow small businesses and their employees to connect from anywhere and thereby be competitive locally and globally. We also have to improve the skills and the accessibility of a qualified workforce—as small businesses begin to emerge from the pandemic, one of the most common frustrations I hear is lack of qualified workers. Finally, access to credit is more important than ever; ready cash is the key to small businesses being able to take advantage of the growth opportunities in front of them.
Rhett Buttle: Can you describe the factors that NSBA weighs in determining whether or not a proposed policy will positively impact small business?
Todd McCracken: At NSBA, we employ an “issues filter” that helps guide us in determining how we should deploy our scarce resources. After all, there is almost no end to policies that impact at least some small business, and the impact of policies on our members can vary to a great degree. Being a very member-driven organization—with members that are very diverse in industry, geography, and political ideology—makes our issue filter critical to ensuring that we make the most of our resources while guaranteeing that each member’s proposals are given equal consideration. Any policy our organization advocates must: have a broad impact on the small business community and must be something we can effectively impact.
Our positions and priorities are completely in the hands of our small business members who are deeply connected to their own small business network in their cities, states, and regions. They are at the heart of what is happening with real small businesses all over the country and what the real needs and opportunities are.
On top of that, we supplement with ongoing surveys and research so that we are confident we are always in touch with the trends and developments in Small Business America.
Rhett Buttle: NSBA was a founding member of the Small Business Roundtable? Why did you join SBR and how does NSBA work with coalitions like it to further its goals?
Todd McCracken: So much of the strength of the small business community comes from its incredible diversity; we have all types of businesses run by all types of individuals in every corner of this country with countless, different priorities. It would be the height of hubris to think that one singular organization could fully represent all the needs and concerns of this rich tapestry. The wide variety of organizations within SBR means that we can reach even deeper into the small-business community—each can specialize while we also come together to speak with a stronger voice on those issues of importance to a broad base of small businesses.
Rhett Buttle: What resources are available to small business owners who wish to become more active in public advocacy?
Todd McCracken: Information is key. At NSBA, we are a constant source of inside information on the latest developments regarding issues that impact small business. Our members receive updates at least weekly on all things small business, but also guidance on how and when to use that information to engage with policymakers. We also provide our members with a broad array of policy briefs and backgrounders for their own use, but also to share with their contacts. Finally, we help with messaging and provide the key talking points that are needed on current issues. NSBA has identified key small-business leaders across the country and invited them to be a part of our Small Business Leadership Council, a grass-tops type of group that meets with their elected officials and are regularly connected with members of the media to help tell the small-business story.
Rhett Buttle: Can you describe how a stable democracy and vibrant Main Street go hand-in-hand?
Todd McCracken: Dealing with the government and our elected officials can often be deeply frustrating for small-business owners. Translating the realities of running a business for officials who have never had that experience can be difficult and sometimes disheartening. Moreover, a government that moves at a snail’s pace can be maddening for a fast-paced entrepreneur. Discontent among small-business owners with politics in the U.S. is unacceptably high – 86 percent of small-business owners say politics have become more partisan in the last 10 years.
But those facts just always put me in mind of the famous quote from Winston Churchill that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms . . .”
Main Street small businesses would never have meaningful influence on government outside of a democracy, as we can see repeatedly through history. Moreover, small businesses are likely to be hurt first and most deeply by any kind of political instability. Instability leads to economic worries which leads lenders and investors to pull back (from small business first) and consumers to reduce spending. I am completely convinced that the long history of stable democracy in the United States has been a key ingredient in creating and sustaining the world’s greatest and most innovative small-business economy. Anything that endangers that tradition endangers small business.
In our frustrations, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that we CAN impact our government and that most of our officials DO want to help small businesses. It is only through strong and stable democratic institutions that those twin truths can sometimes come together.
Rhett Buttle: What types of resources does NSBA offer small businesses to help them establish a digital or online presence?
Todd McCracken: While NSBA’s core mission is to represent small business in the policymaking and regulatory processes, we have cultivated a number of partnerships to help small businesses navigate doing business online. Our long-time partnership with Dell has netted unique member-only discounts for various products and services that Dell is known for as well as a series of webinars on key topics. We also have an ongoing partnership with Cisco to provide high-level trainings and webinars on remote work, cybersecurity, and more, and we provide resources through our partnership with RingCentral which hosts all our webinar, video conferencing, and meeting services. We will be partnering with Facebook to create educational tools for members to hone their social media marketing, and have worked with other solutions companies like GoSite for online payment platforms and business solutions.