Does Your Business Give Back?
Building a charitable component into your business can be an effective and energizing way to level up your marketing efforts and get ahead of your biggest competitors. It doesn’t have to be complicated and it doesn’t have to be overarching, but it’s important that a program of generosity is executed with thoughtfulness and intentionality.
Your generosity needs to jive with the mission and the scale of your company, whether you’re a one-person consulting business or a startup with an entire team of creatives. Your customers will demand it and your organization of choice deserves it.
Once you’ve decided that being generous and giving back with your business profits is an important part of your model, you’ll need to take some time to consider how you’re going to structure your donations and who will receive them. These two decisions go hand in hand, so you’ll want to consider them simultaneously, rather than nailing down up front what exactly you’re giving away and how you’ll do it.
The specific mission of the nonprofit you end up choosing will probably strongly influence how you give since in-kind donations like free coaching sessions or a discounted fee on one of your e-courses might be just as valuable to your future charity partner as straight-up cash. So I suggest first narrowing your field of nonprofit choices down to a handful and then examining what kind of donations of your time and money would be most useful to each.
Sounds easy, right? I’ve actually found eliminating organizations from our list of potential partners to be a big, ugly, emotional hurdle—I mean, how do you decide between funding a tutoring program for homeless kids, a support network for teen moms, or a job training center for international refugees? (This was a real decision for me, by the way.) There are going to be many organizations—just within a few square miles of your neighborhood alone—that are more than deserving of your help and that desperately need more funds and more volunteer support. And a big chunk of those will have missions that are appealing to you and that you’d like to serve. So how do you choose?
MAKE A LIST OF YOUR VALUES
Think about your personal experience:
Are there people who inspired you?
Are there causes you’ve personally benefitted from that you’d to show gratitude to?
What about causes that hit close to home?
There’s probably an innovative nonprofit organization working to solve large-scale, on-the-ground problems right in the area where you live, work, and play. These kinds of connections can really motivate you as you craft a message around your story of generosity and help that story feel like a logical part of your business for your clients.
Think about your model:
What values align with your vision for your company?
What values make sense for you to encourage in your clients and fans?
If you need help with this values exercise and how they might impact the way you show gratitude, check out the Being Boss Values Resource.
I once read an inspiring article about a healthy eating campaign targeting kids under 10. It was full of ingenious ideas for success in infiltrating food deserts and improving the effects of childhood hunger on academic scores. It was fantastic. Then I laughed out loud when I saw that the whole undertaking was basically fully funded by one large corporate sponsor: Cadbury. Yep, the candy company. Marshmallow Peeps meet the food pyramid. Now that’s some good one-way PR.
DO SOME GENEROSITY RESEARCH—BOTH ONLINE AND IN PERSON
Check out what these search tools have to say about the organizations you’re most interested in. Some good places to start are GiveWell.org, CharityNavigator.org, and GreatNonprofits.org. You can use these tools to get a good idea of how an organization runs its finances and makes programming decisions—you know, cold hard facts that offer accountability and transparency as you think about handing over your hard-earned profits. But while looking at all the numbers, don’t forget that these tools can’t measure the boldness of an organization or its strength of commitment to a cause.
These kinds of characteristics, the company’s character and DNA—like its ability to pioneer new work that’s never been attempted and its curiosity to answer questions that might take generations to answer—are things you’re going to have to sense in your gut as you read the literature and talk to the staff.
And definitely talk to the staff. Take the time to tour your top three or four choices, preferably during everyday programming. Look at how they care for their facilities, how they treat their clients, and how they treat each other. Make sure that your favorite organization inspires you and invites you into a culture you’re pumped about becoming an advocate for.
EVALUATE THE BENEFITS POTENTIAL OF EACH CANDIDATE
I know it’s going to seem counter-intuitive as you ponder your place in improving the human condition, but I want you to look at each candidate and allow yourself to ask the question, “What are you going to do for me?” (I know it feels wrong, but track with me.) Your relationship with your chosen nonprofit should feel mutually beneficial, in all the right ways.
You’re authentically offering a new avenue for exposure to an untapped base of donors and volunteers, all using an advocacy method that’s organic, positive, and takes little effort on behalf of the organization you deeply care about. And the organization provides you with similar intangible benefits: think about the great talking point you now have with local news media, the goodwill and loyalty it inspires in your clients, and the added purchase motivation when comparing you to competitors.
HOW WILL THE ORGANIZATION WORK TO BENEFIT YOU?
But not all nonprofits have the staff, the budget, or the tech tools to make your relationship a rewarding one. An understaffed organization probably can’t spare the time to communicate well with a young entrepreneur whose giving isn’t going to reach the million-dollar level any time soon, so make sure they have a development department whose sole job is to cultivate relationships with all donors—big or small. And check up on your organization’s social media savvy:
How often do they update their feeds and does their public presence resonate with you?
Do they thank their donors publicly?
Although you can’t ask your organization of choice to advertise for you (this is a big no-no), you can expect to be recognized and thanked for your gifts of money, service, and promotion.
ARE THERE LIMITATIONS TO THE ORGANIZATION’S COMMUNICATION?
It’s also important to identify any limitations the organization may legitimately require in their communication—both directly with you and indirectly to your customers. One example that caused problems in my first few partnerships was confidentiality. My staff and I worked with two organizations that, for safety reasons, couldn’t allow us to identify their clients in any way, including taking photos of them, even at public events.
One group served foster kids who are often caught in the middle of turbulent and deeply private family circumstances. But who are also SO CUTE. It was killer to not be able to show their smiling little faces to our customers as we outfitted them with winter coats or handed their foster families the truckloads of donated Christmas presents we’d collected with the help of our fans. We don’t regret our support, of course, but in hindsight, we can see a myriad of other options to benefit kids in need in a way that would have allowed us to keep our customers better informed about how their purchases made a difference.
COMMUNICATE YOUR EXPECTATIONS CLEARLY
So bottom line: it’s important to clearly communicate that your funds come with no-strings-attached (you’re not holding their donation hostage if they only mention you on Twitter twice this month), but that you have specific expectations for recognition, inclusion, and communication. And then give them a list of those specifics during a friendly face-to-face where you explain your plan for giving:
Do you want to be invited to volunteer events?
Do you want them to accompany you to a newspaper interview once a quarter?
Do you want them to have a presence at the benefit events you’re planning to host?
Let them know and gauge their excitement about the time and energy this relationship will involve from both of you.
Using your business as a means to benefit your local community isn’t just good citizenship, it’s good business acumen. Suppose you can build your commitment to supporting worthy causes into the basic fabric of your company, by being transparent about your giving program and creating a relationship between the customer, the business, and a dynamic, meaningful recipient. In that case, you’re going to experience next-level loyalty from your fan base. It feels good to give, especially when that gift is combined with thousands of others to really make a difference for a cause you’re passionate about. And don’t be afraid to put those donation dollars to work for your bottom line—the more your sales grow, the more giving power you can harness. That’s winning for everyone.
Being Generous With Your World
Being boss means being able to impact the world around you in a way that you can feel good about. It means showing up and being generous in a way that feels value-aligned. We know this is important to many small business owners and creative entrepreneurs and we’ve talked about it a lot here:
Emily’s take on How to Make Giving a Part of Your Business Model
Rachel Greiman’s perspective on Supporting Nonprofits as a Small Business
Check out more articles and podcast episodes in our Business for Purpose Resource Guide
Your values embody the spirit of how you’ll act in generosity but they are a crucial part of navigating being boss as well.