This holiday season, instead of throwing a fancy party for employees, Unique Personnel and Temporaries Inc. is giving 5percent of its December sales and salaries to charity. Mark Story, marketing director for the District-based temporary employment agency, said the company hopes to raise more than $10,000 for McKenna House, a local shelter that also provides job counseling and drug abuse treatment.
Like many small companies, Story said, Unique Personnel realized that giving to charity is not just for large firms. And because the slowdown of the local economy has dealt a double whammy to charitable organizations -- providing them with more people in need of service and less revenue because companies and individuals have less to donate -- it decided that this was the year to start giving.
"The primary benefit is the fact that we are all learning that we are a hell of a lot more fortunate than a lot of the people out there," Story said. "We all see what the other half looks like."
But that's not the only benefit. As many small companies have discovered, Unique is finding that community involvement can be good for business, too.
"Obviously we will gain some name recognition by spearheading this whole campaign," Story said. "Temporary agencies sometimes can be perceived as being very heartless. By making a statement like this, we're showing that we're not like this."
Finding time or money to give to charity can be more difficult for a small-business owner than for someone at a large company. But the rewards -- a positive image and a loyal customer base -- usually mean more to a company that depends on its community for business.
"Personal relationships between the owner of the business and the customer is what makes the business work," said Jan Carmichael, director of Montgomery College's small business development center. "Particularly when you're in the retail business, trust, service, quality and community are the ways that you sell your business. ... It gets you known as being someone who cares more about the community than about making money."
Carmichael, who counsels current and potential small-business owners in Montgomery County, advises new storefront businesses to get involved in the community by donating time. For example, she advised one hairdresser to give free courses at a local high school as a way of making inroads in a new neighborhood.
Another client of the center, Ruth Hanessian, who owns the Rockville pet store Animal Exchange, said that her volunteer work is good for business but that the time and money spent on it is difficult to justify with any cost ratio analysis.
Hanessian spends one morning a month delivering homeless pets to the Rockville Senior Center and matching them up with residents who might want to adopt them. The biggest benefit of her program, she said, is the feedback about the animals "outside of the buy-sell relationship." The publicity her shop gets from the program doesn't hurt, but Hanessian said her motivation for doing it primarily is altruistic.
"When I grew up, mothers volunteered," she said. "Now both parents work, and who's going to do it?"
Phil Bundy, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, started his company, International Golf Outings, with the same intent of filling a gap in charitable donations. In an era of corporate buy-outs, when many companies that once served local communities are no longer contributing, it's up to entrepreneurs to give more, he said.
Along with his company, which organizes golf outings for companies, Bundy started a charitable foundation intended to raise money to buy Christmas presents for needy children.
Last month, Bundy mailed about 430 letters inviting corporate executives from around Baltimore and Washington to play in a charity golf classic at $600 a foursome to benefit Children's Favorite Things, his foundation. Because these same people would also be the ones to hire International Golf Outings, he was marketing his company at the same time.
"It's really incredible what sort of image building you can do," Bundy said. "IGO's creed is basically pleasing people, and there's no better way to show that than through what I have done."
For Bundy, who is a full-time student and is hoping to get his company off the ground as a sideline business, the time spent organizing the event was not taken away from the everyday concerns of running a small business full-time. The project took him 200 hours and cost about $500 personally, he said. Other companies complain that time is the biggest element restraining them from doing the same.
To answer that concern, the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce is organizing a charitable foundation through which it will channel the donations of members who don't have time to screen out scams.
David Speck, co-chairman of the foundation, called Alexandria Business Cares, said because small businesses are constantly faced with requests from charities, deciding who to give to can become a full-time job. As a result, many small-business owners, who might have some money to give decide to do nothing at all.
"For small businesses, one of the major problems is the constant requests for their resources," said Speck. "And in a sense every request is legitimate."