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At United Way, we know how much small businesses matter in their community, and how much they are depended on for both their economic and social contributions. Flourishing communities and human success, of course, mean stronger local economies in which we can all live and work. Successful small businesses benefit the community at large by providing critical jobs and tax revenues. And, equally important, no segment of a community knows its needs better than our small business owners. They are key partners with United Way in communities throughout the nation.
The financial contributions people make to United Way is vital to our work. Small businesses donated $57 million to United Way in 2008 and their employees contributed another $120 million. Small business employees also generously donated their professional expertise and time. Last year alone, we had 2.5 million volunteers, up nine percent from the year before.
The beginning of a new year is a good time for everyone to assess and perhaps consider new ways to contribute to their communities. Here are five ways your small business can make a positive impact:
Contribute your special skills. Your unique professional abilities that help you make your business a success can also be a tremendous asset to the community. For example, accounting firms may contribute their financial acumen, helping low-income families prepare their taxes so that they may save more of their hard-earned money. Through this work, United Way and its partners have helped individuals and families throughout the country gain access to the Earned Income Tax Credit and other credits. Additionally, for several years around Halloween, an architectural firm has hosted an event where master architects used their artistic skills to creatively carve pumpkins – which are sold for $20 to $100, with the proceeds benefiting the Aloha United Way. There is virtually no limit to how your competencies can be applied to improving your community.
Involve your customers. Working with United Way to raise money for a variety of charitable programs, one local restaurant donated part of its profits for a week and sold its customers chances to win great prizes, including a private wine dinner for eight. In another community, a local ice hockey team invited sports fans to purchase and toss stuffed animals onto the ice to be donated to local children in need, resulting in more than 8,000 donated stuffed animals. Events like this allow your customers opportunities to become more involved in their community as well as bring well-deserved attention to the businesses that are providing leadership.
Engage your employees. Many small businesses take part in United Way “Day of Action” programs, matching volunteer groups with projects that fit their skills and interests. Some company groups interact with children or seniors, teach computer skills to job seekers, deliver meals, or paint and landscape shelters or other assistance facilities. The projects are flexible – they can be done throughout the year and usually require no more than a day. These projects showcase your organization’s philanthropic spirit as well as strengthen the bonds between your employees.
Network with other businesspeople and the community. Many United Ways have special leadership groups, for women, young professionals and others, where people can share ideas and be a part of a local plan of action. Check with your local United Way at http://www.liveunited.org/ to see how you can spread the word or connect with other professionals who want to make a difference.
Use your community knowledge and play a role in creating solutions. Many local United Ways produce community needs assessments which detail the most significant issues facing their area. Your local United Way can talk to you about how you can become a champion for important local causes. United Way and its community partners in Los Angeles recently held a benefit walk to raise awareness for homeless issues and more than 5,000 people turned out. Of those, 3,500 further volunteered to count and help to assess the city’s homeless population, crucial for impacting the policies surrounding this pressing community issue. You can also write letters to the editor of local papers and take a more active role in affecting local issues and policies.
The important take-away is that creating community success strategies shouldn’t just be left to government or the nonprofit sectors, and that small businesses have a crucial role to play. Strategies are best developed when all critical view points and expertise are engaged. Again, no segment of a community knows its people and issues better than its small business owners. Your knowledge and leadership is key to creating these solutions.
I’d like to thank FedEx for sponsoring this important opportunity to speak to the readers of OPEN Forum. FedEx and United Way have worked together since 1975, and we both understand the power that small businesses have in bringing about meaningful change. I encourage you to visit http://www.liveunited.org/ and discover how you can help make your community a better place to live and work.
Brian Gallagher is the president and CEO of United Way Worldwide.
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