Why Philanthropy Can Save Your Business

April 10th, as I am certain everyone knows, marks the start of National Volunteer Week.  In this month’s issue of Fast Company, Margaret Rhodes writes:

Gym reimbursements and lavish company parties may be going the way of the dinosaur, but paid time for volunteering is one employee perk not yet in danger of extinction.  Take UnitedHealthcare, whose company attorneys recently donated 600 hours of pro bono legal service.  Or Target, whose workers spend 450,000 hours annually on projects such as overhauling school libraries.  At Gap, staffers can spend five company hours each month on causes like teaching underserved youths about job applications.  VolunteerMatch, which pairs corporations with communities, expects skills-based volunteerism to double by 2015, thanks to a huge win-win factor: “Employees learn project management skills and improve their public speaking skills,” says Gap’s director of employee engagement, Gail Gershon.  “Obviously you want to get promoted, and this is a clear path to getting there.”

Talk about a win-win.  The company gets employees who gain project management and public speaking skills, and the employees become candidates for promotion.  What’s not to love?

Of course, there is nothing new here.  Everyone knows that Google and Zappos have always encouraged their staff to work on their own projects during company time.  It results in new businesses for the companies, and happy employees.  The companies lose nothing.  They gain everything.

In his excellent book, Million Dollar Consulting, Alan Weiss notes that, “The best organizations today give employees a certain number of paid days off to volunteer.  They encourage employees to get involved at leadership levels in nonprofit organizations.”  Moreover, companies that take the initiative to create philanthropic programs “are building relational capital with their employees and with their community.  That’s leveraging philanthropy.”  And the result can be “increased customer loyalty and revenue, [and] deeper employee loyalty and lower turnover.”

Companies need to appreciate that corporate philanthropy is not simply writing a check.  It has to be strategic.  As Tommy Spaulding notes in his book, It’s Not Just Who You Know: Transform Your Life (and Organization) by Turning Colleagues and Contacts into Lasting, Genuine Relationships, companies need to “transition from the old model of community business plans to the new business model of community investing.”  But that’s not all.  ” These plans are strategic and targeted, and they offer the greatest potential benefits to the company and the charities.”  Moreover,  ” Nonprofits have to leverage their outreach to benefit companies.  And companies have to leverage their relationship with nonprofits so they can create a return on their investment that includes more marketing exposure, more brand awareness, greater employee engagement, stronger customer retention, more effective public relations, and higher sales and profitability.”

Spaulding continues,

Sometimes organizations need innovative ways to create and implement giving strategies.  Or they need help building relationships with non-profits that are accustomed to simply holding out their hands and asking for money rather than seeing companies as strategic partners.  Of they need help learning what it means to turn all of that focus on corporate social responsibility into something that’s meaningful to the individuals throughout their organization.

From the non-profit’s perspective it is important that it “figure out the causes that make the most sense given the company’s mission, vision and values.”  As for the company, it needs to follow the trend of the past few years and create “a focused and intentional strategy for community involvement.”  As Spaulding puts it, “You can’t just give money to all the chirping birds; you have to be more strategic.”  This is not a company “giving” money, it’s a company that is “investing” in a cause.

How would a company go about starting a philanthropic program?

First, someone has to make the pitch.  If it’s the employer, he or she has to make it clear that everything will be done on company time, no one will lose any pay, and the employees are in the lead.  They choose the charity or charities or the cause(s).  This is not the boss promoting himself with a charity of his choosing.  If it’s the employees that want to proceed, they need to convince the boss using the above mentioned points to show that not only will a charitable program not cost anything, but the benefits more than make up for any lost time.

Regardless, it’s the employees who have to take ownership of the program.  To again quote Spaulding,

A deep, meaningful corporate investment program seeks the opinions of the employees and aligns with their interests, not just the interests of its executive leadership.  And it involves not just the checks that are written, but the way companies engage their employees and customers in the community.  Every employee of an organization should be loyal to three things: the mission of the company, the customers or constituents they serve, and the welfare of the community.

Second, staff, which can include the owner/boss in a subordinate role (“Just one of the boys/girls!”) , need to get organized.  They need to decide whether to form their own non-profit to which employees will make monetary donations or if it should be more informal.  If the donation is of money, the question is who writes the check: ABC Co., Ltd. or the ABC Employees Foundation.

Third, once they have organized they need to decide what cause or charity to support.  Some philanthropic programs are more formal than others, calling for the submission of written proposals to support a few causes.  Others simply choose on their own to whom to give.

Fourth, next they have to define “support”.  It can be monetary, a donation of product or volunteering.  Many companies have a “Volunteer Day” and usually make it on Martin Luther King Day.

And sixth, there is follow-up.  The staff, and employer, need to know that they have had an impact.  Accordingly,  they have to remain in touch with the recipients of their generosity.  By so doing, they build a real relationship which can only grow over time.

How to Handle Nasty PR

There must be a full moon – even though it’s 10 AM on a Sunday morning.

I have had phenomenal luck with my marketing/public relations campaign.  During the past year I have been quoted in well over 100 publications.  On occasion I am contacted by individuals wanting advice.  It’s not something I do professionally, but I am happy to answer questions.  Two such e-mails greeted me this morning.  I wrote back that I would respond in a blog posting.

The first person, a woman from Florida, let’s call her Mary, was accused by a customer of not having fulfilled her commitments.  If you are lucky, there are only three sides to every story.  No doubt there is enough blame to go around.  Getting into an argument is not, however, a good idea.

Mary wanted to know if I could get her an interview with a reporter in her home state.  I’ve been quoted in a number of Florida publications, thus her question.

The reason for my PR success is that I don’t go to reporters and pitch stories to them; they send questions to me through the website HelpAReporter.com.  In any case, even if I wanted to pitch stories, I would not pitch this one.  Mary should not escalate.  Her customer wrote what he wrote on his website which, I doubt, anyone reads outside of his personal friends. My advice is simply to post a comment, if he permits comments on his blog, expressing regret that he is dissatisfied and encouraging him to contact her to see how they can work things out.  If he calls, and it’s a big “if,” Mary should insist that, when everything is worked out, that he post a positive update on his blog.  If he does not permit comments on his blog, Mary might want to highlight on her website her customer service policy.

The other individual, let’s call him Michael, was also attacked on a blog that actually has readership.  The owner of the blog does everything anonymously.  This one is easy:  Never respond to an anonymous attack.   Serious people know that persons who hide behind anonymity, whether they use a pseudonym or not, lack the courage of their convictions.  They want to feel important and the way they feel important is to get someone else to respond to them.  The worst thing that can happen to an anonymous attacker is to ignore him.  “You are not important.  You are not worth my time.  You do not matter.”  That is the message that is sent by silence.

Of course, if any critic crosses the line and defames or slanders, legal action is always required.  You don’t want to establish a precedent where people think it is alright to lie about you, slander you, or defame you. ( In such a case, only hire an attorney on contingency.)   But that’s not what Mary and Michael are dealing with.  In the former case it is someone who may honestly feel, albeit wrongly, that he has been cheated.  In the latter, it’s a sad case of a person who seeks publicity at other people’s expense.  The first should, if possible, be placated; the latter should be pitied.