1. NO NEED TO LEARN THE HARD WAY
In the early 2000s, I started two lingerie stores north of Boston, MA. They were located in vibrant communities with lots of wonderful nonprofits doing important community work for worthy causes. The nonprofits were supported in part by businesses donating to nonprofits in various ways.
I too thought the right thing for the community and my business was to support the local nonprofits. Therefore, typically I simply gave what they asked for. Partly because I was afraid of the consequences declining could have to my fledgling business. Also, the nonprofits’ well-meaning volunteers told me that “several hundred people” were going to be at the event. That led me to believe that as a result, my business would get a lot of visibility, new customers, and enormous goodwill.
I wanted to be seen as a community benefactor –
surely my business would flourish as a result – right?
I had to learn the hard way that reactively donating a raffle item, a gift basket, a gift card or even an ad in the program book had no impact whatsoever on my business.
Instead, I came to realize my business was best served if I took the time to apply some strategy and planning to my community contributions.
In other words, I needed to do some homework to produce the desired win-win.
Here are some suggestions based on my learning. I share these so that you don’t have to spin your wheels or spend time and money learning the hard way.
Establish some criteria and a strategy for your nonprofit contributions.
When a nonprofit’s cause, event timing and audience are aligned with your business, not only will your donation likely generate more for the nonprofit, but it will most certainly generate more new business for you.
You and your business will be seen as community benefactors, and the goodwill your business enjoys will grow more quickly.
2. CONSIDER THE TIMING
Most nonprofits approach businesses in the fall or spring, prior to their annual fundraisers.
Is that timing ideal in your business cycle? Does the visibility get bunched into a few short weeks in the fall and late spring, and then it’s all over for the rest of the year?
For example, if the height of lingerie sales falls naturally on Valentine’s Day, why not target silent auctions that are taking place a week or two prior?
Do you have customers that fall into various distinct categories and should you think about when and how you could reach them via your donations?
3. CAREFULLY SELECT THE TYPES OF CAUSES AND NONPROFITS YOUR BUSINESS SUPPORTS
In their groundbreaking book, Good is the New Cool, Afdhel Aziz and Bobby Jones give one powerful illustration of the size of the opportunity that awaits brands: the annual global spending power of Millennials is $2.5 trillion and 95% of them say they would switch brands to one that supported a good cause.
For a small business, moving the needle could be as simple as asking some questions about the demographic profile of the nonprofit’s donors. Then, think about what kind of nonprofit is the most likely to have as supporters people that could be interested in your products or services, and try to form lasting and deep partnerships. This is called brand alignment. For example, if you have an outdoor clothing and gear store, perhaps a Trail Association or an Island Cleanup Association could be great causes to support with a donation to their fundraiser, or better yet, forge a long-standing partnership with.
Also, chances are you and your staff are more excited about contributing to a cause you’re passionate about, and to nonprofits that you get to know well. Instead of just donating to any nonprofit that asks, ask your employees what causes they care about.
4. CONSIDER THE BOTTOM LINE – AVOID GIVING AWAY PRODUCT OR CASH!
Instead of just handing over what a nonprofit asks for, think about what type of donation will have the biggest impact – for both the nonprofit and your businesses customer streams and bottom line. What kind of fundraiser will drive the most new customers to your store or business?
In my early experience, nonprofit volunteers were often shy about asking for anything sizeable. So, I usually ended up giving them low-value gift certificates or small items to add to larger gift baskets. I came to realize these small contributions were not effective at generating new customers – and were cutting into my bottom-line profit. Instead, I started giving away after-hours shopping parties complete with snacks and wine. I also imposed a minimum of ten people to agree to host them. I succeeded in creating a win-win, because the party offer easily generated $250 for each nonprofit and many new customers got introduced to my boutiques.
My friend Joe Waters with Selfishgiving included in a recent blog a news outlet story about an inventively crafted low-cost marketing partnership involving a theater nonprofit and a bakery in Worcester, MA. The only giveaway was a discount offered by the theater production company. Check the whole idea out here. Needless to say, the doughnuts sold out and both benefited from the added visibility.
If your business sells gift cards, consider offering them to nonprofits at a discount. The nonprofit can resell the cards at full price (or at a lesser discount). Consequently, you could end up seeing a lot of new customers. It is then up to you to up-sell to them and to develop them into loyal ones. Just don’t forget to capture their contact information!
Could you host a non-profit-of-the-month in a small area in your business? In the words of my friend Bob Phipps, the Retail Doctor: “Give nonprofits a chance to get their name out. Could you give them a featured place to signup volunteers for the dog park? Adopt a shelter for the holidays? Be creative. Yes, it takes a bit of planning but don’t catastrophize it as “too much.” Make time for the community and they’ll make time for you.”
“Again, your main focus is on building community this year.
We have all had our trust broken in multiple ways and now is the time to continue the repair process.”
5. CONSIDER THE REACH OF NONPROFITS
Find out how many supporters the nonprofits have on their email lists, how many social media followers they have, and how active they are in social media.
Ask how they plan to attract their people to the event. The more active they are, the more likely it is your good deed will be noticed by potential new customers, the greater the impact on your sales will be, and the more money the nonprofit will raise. So pick nonprofits with a large, engaged and loyal audience. And be sure to cap your total contribution!
6. ENSURE VISIBILITY FOR YOUR CONTRIBUTIONS
Ask about the frequency and duration of pre-, during and post-event visibility for your contribution on the nonprofit’s website and in their donor communications.
Ask the nonprofit to publicly acknowledge your contributions. Will they send out a press release thanking the donors, will they take up an thank-you ad in the local paper?
How long will your logo appear on their website as a donor? Will they include a link to your website?
7. ASK FOR FEEDBACK FROM THE NONPROFIT
It is completely acceptable to ask to know the $ amount that your contribution generated, as well as the overall success of the fundraiser. Don’t be shy about sharing the results with your customers and employees.
Maybe set a target for how much you want the item generate. Ask up front what their overall fundraising goal is for the event, and for a report afterwards on how successful they were.
You might consider not contributing to nonprofits who balk at your feedback request.
8. PLAN AHEAD
Consider making a statement on your website about what kinds of causes you support and what kinds of contributions you make. Nonprofits that don’t match your priorities will be less likely to waste your time.
You can also impose a minimum lead time. For example, you can decide not to contribute if the event is less than a month out. You want to make sure the nonprofit has ample time to get the word out.
Map the contributions in a calendar so that they are properly spaced out to optimize the visibility they offer.
Say you own a bookstore, fashion store, or a beauty salon. Your business is likely asked to host nonprofits for week-long or weekend-long percentage-of-sales events. You might be thinking: great, lots of customers. But don’t forget to focus on making those events super successful for your business.
Pick an item, category or service that you know is popular and will drive people to your business, preferably new customers! Pick a time of the year that is normally slower for your business. If your services are by appointment, block off appointment slots for the nonprofit, but release them in time to fill them with regular business if the fundraiser is slow to generate booked appointments. If it is a first in-first served-event for, say, nail polish changes or blow-outs, make sure you have a way to capture contact information. For example, pass around a email newsletter sign-up sheet and promise that they will receive a coupon offer for their next appointment need.
9. IT IS OK TO BRAG! – YOUR CUSTOMERS, PRESENT AND POTENTIAL, WANT TO KNOW.
Americans prioritize companies that are responsible (86%), caring (85%), advocate for issues (81%), protect the environment (79%) and give back to important causes (73%). So, make sure you can tell your present and potential customers about your giving to your community!
Keep a running list – for example 12 months rolling using the template I created – of the nonprofits you’ve contributed to. Ask your web designer to add a link or an article about the community good your business does. Add the links to all the nonprofits to it and make it accessible on your website. You can even add the link to the article to your email signature and your email newsletters.
Post about your nonprofit contributions every once in a while in the social media channels of your business!
Consider offering a certain amount to each of your employees to donate to a cause of their choice each year. This serves to motivate your employees and get them engaged in talking about your business’s support for the community. Think about mentioning this as a distinguishing employee benefit in your process of attracting and recruiting new employees.
Alternatively, if you determine that spreading your contributions thinly to a multitude of nonprofits is not really making a difference for your business, then pick just one cause you care deeply about for personal or strategic reasons, and make a multi-year commitment of cash, program sponsorship, or whatever makes most sense. Then leverage all you do in all possible channels. Keep all other requests at bay by making very clear on your website that you only support that one cause.
10. FINALLY: TRACK YOUR CONTRIBUTIONS !
Start an Excel file (for example using the template we offer here) or some other preferred way to track your contributions so you can learn, and become more strategic over time – improving the returns to your business as well as the nonprofits you choose to support. Tip: The greater the premium % generated by your item, the better the match between the supporter base of the nonprofit and your potential customer base.
Here is a screenshot of a template I created:
About the Author
Founder and CEO
Merit Kuusniemi is the Founder and CEO of Ansio Global Goods Ltd. dba MyTownDoesGood.com connecting nonprofits and businesses for community good. Merit has decades of nonprofit engagement and entrepreneurial business experience in the U.S. She is now a startup entrepreneur based in Finland, a startup angel, advisor and board professional. Sign up to learn more about MyTownDoesGood.com
Keywords: fundraising, cause marketing, community, community-centered service, equity, corporate social responsibility, SDG, ESG, CSR