Small businesses revive spirit of giving


With large corporations downsizing and many corporate giving programs cutting back, it may seem like corporate philanthropy is dying. But don't let anyone tell you that the corporate service ethic is dead in Maryland.

Most economists say they believe we are in an era of transition, where big business is being replaced as the main economic engine by smaller, more entrepreneurial companies.

They point to the fact that the majority of new jobs are created by this segment of business, while the Fortune 500 have actually netted a loss of jobs over the past decade.

Unfortunately, small companies do not normally have the staffing and resources to devote to developing and maintaining effective charitable giving programs. However, this has been changing recently.

More attention is being focused on ways to bring smaller businesses into community service. And, many smaller companies are exploring ways on their own to involve themselves in charitable works.

As an example, consider the small, but full-service regional accounting firm of Grabush, Newman & Co. in Towson.

They've found an innovative way to reach out to charities, while still meeting -- and even enhancing -- their business goals.

Typical of many accounting firms in a highly competitive market, Grabush offers small-business owners a series of informative seminars in areas ranging from financing to personnel management.

Seminars of this type, of course, help to market the company's services. Grabush's seminars are co-sponsored by the Maryland Small Business Development Center Network.

What Grabush has done is put a neat spin on these seminars that ultimately benefits the clients of community charities.

Grabush charges a nominal $25 fee, for which participants receive refreshments and written materials on the topic. Grabush has participants make their checks out directly to one charity that employees jointly choose to sponsor at these bimonthly seminars.

The charity also gets 15 minutes at the start of the seminar to explain why it exists, to hand out brochures, and perhaps to make some post-seminar connections.

Previous beneficiaries, like the House of Ruth or the Transition Housing Program of the Housing Assistance Corp., love the windfall. Every party to the transaction benefits, most especially the beneficiaries of the charity's services.

What nonprofits need to do now is take the contacts they make at the seminar a few steps farther and involve small business participants in follow-up projects. The old maxim that involvement leads to commitment and then to additional resources is as true today as always.

My experience is that small-business owners and employees would be receptive to creative ways to continue serving their communities.

In fact, one crucial role that organizations like United Way or other umbrella nonprofit groups could play is to develop creative ways to broker those connections. After all, that is where the real future of corporate America may be heading.

Grabush has also turned another corporate institution on its head.

Occasional casual dress days have become institutionalized in our region. Grabush assesses each employee $10 for a month of Friday casual days, then gives the funds to a local charity. Organizations like The Children's House at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, which is run by Baltimore's own Grant-A-Wish Foundation, has found itself on the receiving end of one of these checks.

Chaim Yudkowski, a CPA with Grabush, Newman & Co., has spearheaded some of these charitable initiatives.

My conversations with him proved to me that there is an entrepreneurial spirit within the small business environment that nonprofits simply must tap into in order to position themselves for the future. Far too many nonprofits, large and small alike, chase the same few large businesses just because they have a higher profile in the community.

Through creative approaches, such as those started by Grabush, both sectors could benefit. That would translate into real bottom-line savings for their nonprofit partners.

Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202 (410) 783-5100.

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