Smart Giving

Donating to local community groups without breaking the bank

The local elementary school asked for donations for new playground equipment. High school band members knocked on the door looking for money for a trip. And the police were pushing tickets to their annual ball. Minneapolis Web designer Rebecca St. Martin wanted to help them all, "but I just don't have the resources," she says.

Strong relationships in the community are a boon for many businesses -- until local community groups come around looking for support. Luckily, it's possible to give to good causes and reap dividends for your company, all without straining your budget.

The key is to have a philanthropy policy firmly in place, follow it, and communicate it clearly to anyone who asks for money. The groups you choose to work with will know you're committed to them and, with luck, will give you some recognition in return. You'll be able to refuse the rest gently without seeming like a Scrooge.

In the best-case scenario, you'll be able to form a partnership with a group whose mission dovetails with your business. "A social investment has got to be strategic," says Doris Rubenstein, author of The Good Corporate Citizen: A Practical Guide (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). "It has to be as much an investment as a donation."

Brad Cassiday and Lola Michelin did just that. Their fledgling Northwest School of Animal Massage in Redmond, Wash., trains people to use massage to treat animals with health problems such as arthritis. With no cash for donations -- the startup took in $50,000 last year -- the husband-and-wife team hold classes in local animal shelters. The shelters charge about half the rent the school would normally pay, and the school can often classify the payments as charitable donations for tax purposes. During class, the students give free massages to strays. The partnership helps the school's enrollment, too: Cassiday says that about one-sixth of his students first learned about animal massage through the shelters.

Without a charity that seemed a natural for her company, St. Martin decided to let clients choose for her. Two percent of her revenues go to charities favored by customers, helping to build customer loyalty. "Clients are surprised and impressed, and it gives us a chance to talk about things that are important to us," she says. Now she's courting some of those charities as potential clients.

Of course, you need to let people know about your good work. But be warned: "If you toot your horn too loudly, you'll be seen as self-serving," says Rubenstein. In your advertising, it's not too much to include the words, "Proud Sponsor of" followed by the name of your chosen charity, along with its logo. It's even better if the nonprofit publicizes your support. Some do this through newsletters; others purchase advertising thanking their supporters. Not all good deeds, after all, need to go unnoticed.

By Jessi Hempel

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