Business Rx: What small businesses can learn from large ones about corporate giving

The words “corporate giving” often evoke thoughts of companies giving big donations to nonprofit organizations. In fact, an important source of funding for many nonprofits is donations from the private sector.

Aside from the financial contributions, companies also give in other ways to benefit their communities or make an impact on a specific issue. A company may provide employees with paid time off to volunteer several hours a month, partner with organizations to provide their expertise on a pro bono basis, lend office and meeting space to nonprofits or donate some of their product. These activities help companies fulfill their role as good corporate citizens and can help a company develop deeper ties in the communities where it operates, which can also help its bottom line in the long term.

This type of giving isn’t just for large companies that can donate huge sums of money or mobilize thousands of employees for a service project. Any small business or start-up can incorporate giving activities into their work. While this type of corporate social responsibility is important to thriving, equitable and sustainable communities, it can also help a company grow. Small businesses and start-ups can learn from bigger companies when it comes to social responsibility and adopt some of these initiatives:

Employee volunteerism

Encouraging employees to volunteer with a local nonprofit is a great way for any small business or start-up to incorporate social responsibility into their business. It is especially ideal to align the volunteer activity with the needs of the community and the focus of the business. A great example of a well-aligned employee volunteer activity would be employees of a real estate firm volunteering together with a nonprofit that builds or renovates homes for low-income families or first-time homeowners. Studies on the subject of employee volunteerism show the many benefits to the community, the employees and the company — including increased employee satisfaction and retention. In addition to encouraging employees to volunteer, businesses should create an environment that supports employee volunteerism by directly organizing such activities, partnering with a specific organization to volunteer with and support on a long-term basis, and giving employees several hours of paid time off each month to volunteer.

Pro bono

While employee volunteerism focuses mostly on traditional volunteer activities such as painting a room in a school or sorting donated items, employees can also volunteer their skills and expertise. Many major law firms have robust pro bono programs that provide free legal assistance to selected nonprofits. Any skill-based business can do the same by sharing its employees’ knowledge and expertise for the benefit of a nonprofit. A small web design firm, for example, could help local nonprofits create or redesign a Web site. Such pro bono engagements are mutually beneficial because, in addition to providing organizations with a much-needed service at no cost, the employees that work on the projects will likely learn something new or gain a new skill that they can apply in their job. Thus, doing pro bono work is a great way to build skills and develop professionally, especially for junior employees who are often able to take a more hands-on or leadership role in a pro bono engagement.

Targeted giving

If a business is not in a position to give large contributions to nonprofits, consider more targeted giving. Think about the mission and focus of the business and what charitable initiatives align with it. A small business or start-up that provides a simple way for people to order food and have it delivered to them could support an organization such as a local food bank or other program that provides meals to families in need. Also consider making contributions to a small or mid-size organization; a relatively small contribution can have a bigger impact and the organization may be willing to provide more recognition for the contribution, since it would likely be a more significant contribution for them than for a larger organization.

Buy one, give one

Small businesses and start-ups can also incorporate social responsibility by adopting the buy-one, give-one model. In this model, for each item purchased, another similar item (eyeglasses, shoes, etc.) is donated to a person in need. This model helped the footwear company Toms stand out in its early days, and it appeals to young adults who generally prefer to buy products and patronize businesses that include some type of social responsibility. For a small or mid-size florist, for example, a great way to adopt this model would be to donate a bouquet of flowers to an area hospital or shelter for each bouquet sold. It would be a great opportunity to both differentiate the business from others while also brightening the days of people in tough circumstances.

Corporate giving and social responsibility aren’t just for big, well-established companies. Any small business or start-up can be creative and resourceful to find a way to incorporate social responsibility into its work in order to benefit the community and potentially increase its bottom line.

Darius Graham is a social entrepreneur-in-residence at the Center for Social Value Creation at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is director and founder of the DC Social Innovation Project, which invests in innovative community programs tackling pressing social issues in the District. Since 2011, the DC Social Innovation Project has convened and awarded nearly $200,000 in funding and pro bono services to help community members and organizations launch eight programs addressing unemployment, education and access to healthy food.

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