Build Your Business By Building Your Community

I recently learned the entrepreneurs and founders of thriving, award-winning, small-to-midsize businesses in operation for at least three ye
April 29, 2011

I recently learned the entrepreneurs and founders of thriving, award-winning, small-to-midsize businesses in operation for at least three years share an interesting characteristic.

No, their commonality is not an MBA. Not a cut-to-the-bone management style. And they're not all tech startups.

The common denominator: These companies allocate more than twice the percentage of their profits to charity than many of America's largest companies.

What's more, 62 percent of these company founders believe that giving to charity makes their company more successful in the long run, according to a Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund survey that released these findings. And 70 percent didn't wait for success before they started giving back to their communities, the survey said.

One entrepreneur has said, "Making a difference in the lives of others is as rewarding as anything you will accomplish." Giving back works for these companies. It can work for yours, too.

Here's their strategy:

  • Get personally involved in both selecting the nonprofit you'll support and working with it. Join its board of directors, and help out on the front lines of the program.
  • Work with nonprofits in your local community, near where you and your employees work and live.
  • Be businesslike. Before you choose a nonprofit to support, look at its track record, efficiency and strategy.
  • Encourage your employees—in other words, pay for their time off—to volunteer their time or expertise to nonprofits.
  • Provide matching donations for employee giving.
  • Build giving into the DNA of your company. Include it as a line item in your budget.

If you're just starting out, don't be daunted. You don't need money to become a valued member of your community. Remember, the entrepreneurs in the study didn't wait until they were successful to start giving back. Think of other ways to give:

  • Donate your expertise, or even just your helping hands, to an event or project. Join the board or sit on a committee that's planning a project or event.
  • Have an "employee volunteer day" to refurbish a playground, or help at a health fair.
  • Donate part of your proceeds for a certain time period—say, 7 to 9 p.m. one night—to the cause.
  • Develop a social-media campaign that raises money for the nonprofit if supporters stop by your business.
  • Offer in-kind donations—raffle prizes, paper goods, paint, tech support—to fundraisers and projects.

As an active member of your community, you'll create a positive image for your business, you'll better understand your customer's needs, and you'll know about new trends in time to keep up.

What's been your experience with community involvement? What other ways can small businesses build their communities?

OPEN Cardmember Geri Stengel is the founder of Ventureneer, which provides values-driven small businesses with the insights, strategies, techniques and solutions to succeed—both as businesses and as social-change agents.