CB_charity Illustration: Holly Wales

It is inevitable: The more success your small business has, the more phone calls you’ll get asking for donations. If you’re among the companies that try to give back to their community, you might be finding that your good intentions are starting to wreak a little havoc on your organization, pulling time and resources away from an already stretched schedule and budget. Handling the requests alone can be overwhelming— not to mention deciding which charities deserve your support.

You’ve worked hard on your strategy for creating a profit, but have you given any thought to your strategy for giving back?

At my former company, Sweetspot.ca, we experienced exponential growth in charitable requests as our website and enewsletter grew in popularity. When running a media company, you’re an attractive partner for just about any non-profit organization, as they all rely on exposure to attract donors or event attendees. We were committed to helping out, but we quickly encountered a problem: trying to give back without breaking the bank. It’s very hard to say no, especially after saying yes to the previous, very similar request (a fact that savvy canvassers always seemed to point out).

We addressed the challenge by setting up clear parameters that enabled us to communicate easily if and how we could help, or why we couldn’t. And we adopted a donation schedule: one organization would be our primary partner for the year; one organization per quarter received a comprehensive media package; and one cause per month was granted a smaller media package. Setting these expectations, which included not only the frequency but also the size of the donations we were able to provide, simplified the process not only for charities making requests, but also for those handling the requests within our organization.

Defining our total budget, which included cash, products for gift bags and media space, was only the first step. We also wanted to ensure that our charitable strategy made business sense. We knew that when done well, giving back can help the bottom line of a business, and not just through the tax breaks that charitable giving offers. (If you’re unclear about the rules, such as the need to deal with registered charities, talk to your accountant.) Giving back can provide exposure and generate goodwill with customers. To achieve these goals, we followed a trend that has taken hold in the corporate world in recent years.

Partially as a result of the tough economy, corporate gift-giving has evolved. Companies are now seeking out programs and partnerships that go beyond signing a cheque to offering strong alignment with their brand. These can be centred around a high-profile event, such as the CIBC Run for the Cure, or represent a year-round relationship, like Home Depot and Habitat for Humanity. While you may not share CIBC’s or Home Depot’s philanthropy budgets, you can apply these principles to your own plan, selecting charities that fit with your company’s goals, customers and image.

In the case of Sweetspot.ca—which produces high-end lifestyle content for Canadian women—we focused our efforts on two charities that we felt would resonate with our readers. Rethink Breast Cancer is a Canadian charity that promotes awareness of the disease among the under-40 crowd and, in its own words, “infuses sass and style into the cause.” Our support was centred around the annual Booby Ball and Rethink’s Fashion Targets Breast Cancer initiative. The charity’s female-focused, fashionable and often cheeky brand style was a perfect fit for Sweetspot.ca, and we were able to cross-promote our sites successfully at Rethink events. We also donated funds from our Sweetmama events to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, aligning moms with a cause close to their hearts.

We achieved success with both these charities by setting expectations from the outset. Being clear about what your firm is capable of offering will help you avoid dealing with unrealistic requests. Consider what you are willing to give, not only in terms of cash or products, but also in time. Can you engage your employees to help at an event? Do you want to have personal input into the initiative? Be open about how much involvement you expect, keeping in mind that when your company is closely tied to a charitable event, the success or failure of that event can reflect on your own brand.

Non-profits typically raise the largest portions of their donations during the holiday season, so you may find requests coming more frequently in the coming weeks. If you’re planning on pulling out your chequebook, think about the bigger picture first.

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