Since winning a corporate philanthropy award from the Arkansas Community Foundation during the Arkansas Business of the Year awards ceremony in February, Ive had many small business owners tell me, Id really like to make a bigger impact like that. We just havent been able to get there yet. They mentioned their aspirations to become more philanthropic companies when:
When we get bigger.
When we get more profitable.
When our staff is not quite so lean.
When. When. When.
If the ABOY organizers had given me more than 60 seconds at the podium, here is what I would have advised my small-business cohorts:
THERE IS NO TOO SMALL. In a category of up to 200 employees, our 10-person firm is a gnat. Yet were able to make an outsize impact by deploying assets beyond money, encouraging a culture of service and making philanthropists and community servants of every team member. We started when our staff numbered two. Your company cant be too small to make a difference.
JUST SAY YES. Admit it; you get plenty of asks. Of course, most requests of businesses come with three zeroes behind them. Presenting sponsorships, corporate tables and the like. Our firm recently made a $25 contribution to the new Baptist Health Regal Regatta, which was raising money for two new mobile ICUs. Frankly, I was embarrassed by such a paltry sum, but I figured it was better than nothing. Start small and dont be embarrassed about it. Barack Obama proved you could finance a national campaign with micro contributions. It doesnt cost much to develop a taste for corporate philanthropy.
REMEMBER YOUR SUNDAY SCHOOL LESSON. In church they tell you to contribute your time, talent and treasure. Same thing holds for corporate philanthropy. Our firm is fortunate in that its fundamental product is creativity. And you can be sure non-profits have a large appetite for creative work products. Invitations, programs, logos, names, web sites, communications strategies. More than 90% of our corporate philanthropy is in pro-bono services. What talents, creativity and time resources in your business could be deployed philanthropically?
SET A BUDGET. Every companys resources are finite, but the charitable needs of the world are not. Establishing a budget (include money, time and other resources) allows you to say yes and requires you to say noand to always feel good about it. Choose an arbitrary number or peg it at a percentage of sales. Putting it in your budget requires you to commit, tells your people you are serious about making an impact and forces some healthy introspection and debate within the firm.
BE STRATEGIC. Okay, heres where you get back from what you give. When you align your corporate philanthropy with your core business, you generate goodwill with key audiences. Blue Cross Blue Shield steers much of its money toward health-related efforts. Delta Dental focuses donations through its Arkansas Smiles framework. Our firm made a reputation designing clever and effective marketing pieces for Arkansas arts organizationsand we made sure we always got a credit line on the piece. Its good business to do well by doing good.
ITS OKAY IF IT HURTS. If youre really working at philanthropy, you might feel a little pinch at the end of the year. Thats a good sign. Like the muscle-ache after a great workout, its there because you really accomplished something. A great fallacy is that businesses exist only to make money. Not true. Businesses exist to create value in the world. That twinge says you made a significant impactproportional to the capacity of your organization.
ENGAGE YOUR TEAM. Businesses are powerful: they not only have money, they have influence. And their greatest influence is with their own employees. When you engage your staff in your companys philanthropy, you create more philanthropists. It made a lasting impression on me that dozens of volunteers from Bank of the Ozarks turned out at last falls Wildwood Park Blooms festival to back up the banks corporate sponsorship. Our employees help identify the philanthropic targets for our firm, and then they help bring those projects to life. Regardless who writes the checks, they become investors in those organizations.
So, back to the question of when. Nobody benefits by waiting for when the time is right or when the situation is perfect. Perhaps well all be able to do more later, but everyone can do something now.
Martin Thoma is a principal with Thoma Thoma, a brand growth and marketing firm serving clients throughout the United States. He is co-creator of The Brand Navigator System, a comprehensive program for discerning, defining and articulating brand power. Reach him at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org or Skype martinethoma.