Investing in Community
Originally published: 11.01.08 by Theo Etzel
A passion for supporting local organizations and individuals creates positive change that can radiate beyond organizational or neighborhood borders.
Business advisor Richard F. Schubert said, "Giving of ourselves is the way we change the world at the end of our fingertips."
As business owners, we have the opportunity to positively impact our world every day just by doing the right things for our customers, our employees and our vendors. Treating people with honesty and integrity in all that we do is the way we should regularly conduct ourselves and our businsses.
It has been my experience that when a company goes to market the right way the community responds with support. This is not to say that people will pay any price to do business with you. They still look at the value equation and, more often than not, want to do business with businesses that model their desired personal traits and values.
As we all know, communities everywhere have projects and needs that require support beyond what tax dollars can fund. Individuals give in many ways and for many reasons. But businesses also have the opportunity to make contributions in time, resources, people and money to support organizations that add value and life to the community in which the business is located.
Of course, your contributions are not limited geographically. You can support worldwide efforts for various and numerous needs. But there are many smaller, lesser-known organizations trying to make a positive difference right in our backyards. These groups need our support. A better local community is the "world at the end of our fingertips" where we can make a difference for our neighbors, side by side.
The methods of investing in your community can be proactive or reactive, or a little of both. We follow the combination of selecting organizations we want to support and then responding to needs demonstrated in the community. Our particular focus involves children's needs and support organizations.
At the beginning of each year, when budgets are derived, we pick an amount that we wish to designate for gifts. Of that amount we are then proactive in selecting certain organizations that fit our giving criteria. Some of these charities have had our involvement for many years. Each year we attempt to increase the amount of giving and add new non-profits to our list or increase our level of participation with existing ones. The reactive giving is done by setting aside about 20 percent of the budgeted total, knowing we will be asked by colleagues, employees, friends and vendors or clients to donate to organizations that are important to them. There is no shortage of causes brought to our attention in which to participate. We do have to be selective in picking things that fit the overall theme of our focus the best we can.
For example, we support educational efforts in public schools by participating in the Education Foundation, and we support after school mentoring programs for underprivileged children through a local organization called Grace Place for Children and Families.
These donations involve money, services, goods in kind and time serving on committees. These are proactive choices and freely given with no expectation of gaining business from them. The reality, I suspect, is that to some people, our involvement makes a difference in their purchasing decision; however, I do not know this and choose not to ask, or act on this assumption.
When making donations I choose to follow the wisdom as passed on in the book of Matthew. Paraphrased, it says: When giving to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Blowing your own horn about your involvement is not in the best interest of the business. I have found it best to let others quietly thank you for your support and let that be your reward.
I have also found, as I am sure you have, that more people and organizations ask for donations than we have the ability with which to respond. We do respond to some and, as needs arise, make provisions in our budget to be able to donate funds or lend support.
However, it is necessary to be able to say no to many worthwhile organizations that truly need money to exist. We'd love to help everyone but that's not reality. Thus, we choose to support our main initiatives and also respond to some that come up during the year.
This year we have added Toys for Tots during the holidays to our initiatives since they need transportation from some of our vehicles, and, some of our staff will be able to be directly involved in the toy drive. Our employees are excited about this participation and the ability to make a difference in the lives of children who would otherwise have very little to open Christmas morning.
Local sponsorships are abundant in every community. While they blur the line between outright donations and advertising, they are needed and add great value to the organization seeking support.
Obviously, high school sports teams request support in the way of program ads or fence banners that generate monies above what the school can provide. While this provides more advertising for your company it also shows a willingness to support the local activities important to people in the community.
I have found that this form of support breeds loyalty from people. They go out of their way to support or recommend us for their air conditioning needs. Again, disappointment will be yours if you set your expectations to a level that people will run to you just because you bought an ad from a sports booster. But, experience has shown this to be a partnership form of support and advertising/sponsorship that leads to brand loyalty.
Many groups need sponsors including charities running golf tournaments, churches, chambers of commerce and the like. We budget advertising dollars for these as opposed to donation dollars since we get recognition in return.
We also invite our employees to participate in organizations and bring opportunities for financial support to our attention. Again, while we may not be able to say yes to everything, we try very hard to support something that is important to one of our employees. Showing that we value what they value goes a long way in support of your staff and their feeling of belonging. Of course, if philosophically you can't support their cause, you must stay true to your beliefs.
The mainstay to being a good corporate citizen is remaining profitable. Then, and only then, can you afford to employ people, provide opportunities for them, and have money to donate to community organizations. The purpose of business is to make money. What you do with that money is then your decision—without money there is no decision to make.
The more efficient and profitable you are, the more choices you have regarding your distribution of those profits. In many cases, leading by example can influence what people do to support the community and you can sway other businesses to support valuable organizations for a better society.
We, as businesses, have an obligation to invest in people and organizations in our communities. These investments need to be looked at as gifts with no strings attached; freely given with no expectation of increased business. If your heart is not into the organizations you wish to support, it will certainly be evident. Passion for your cause is contagious. It's this excitement that creates positive change at a local level, and this local change results in increasing rings of change radiating out across this great country. And, it all starts at the end of our fingertips.
Theo Etzel is the CEO of Naples, Fla.-based Conditioned Air. He is a seasoned business executive and passionate entrepreneur who believes in providing the highest level of customer care, services and products to his clients. For additional information, visit www.conditionedair.com.