What motivates small firms to do charitable work?


Last week I reported on the results of an informal survey I conducted among colleagues who operate corporate volunteer programs for some major companies across the country.

When most nonprofits talk of corporate volunteer programs, they tend to refer to the Fortune 1000, although local nonprofits may also include the largest two dozen companies in their region. But let's keep in mind that for every Fortune 1000 company there are literally another thousand small to mid-sized companies working equally hard in their communities.

I recently led a panel of small and mid-sized businesses, sponsored by the Maryland Chapter of the National Society of Fund Raising Executives. Preliminary planning with Sandy Newman and Julie Ellsworth Cox, two officers of NSFRE, convinced us we should focus on what motivates and persuades small businesses to become involved in philanthropy.

My experience with small business owners convinces me that, at the early stages of growth, the owner has little time for charitable business involvement, other than his or her predisposed passions for one or another charity. Sixteen-hour days and daily battles in the trenches of the marketplace, leave most business owners with precious little time to devote to setting up an organized volunteer system for their company. They also typically do not have the luxury of handing off volunteer duties to hard pressed employees.

Nonetheless, the desire to do good works often stays in the minds of these businesspeople. I find that once annual revenues hit around $5 million, and a new crop of employees enters the work force, the owner begins to think about the type of business culture she or he is creating.

Suddenly thoughts turn to ways they could more effectively pay their community service obligations. In many cases, I'll grant that desire is helped by the owner's wish to pass off some of the time pressures inherent in community service to senior employees.

But in the majority of cases the business decision-makers simply recognize that they could be getting a lot more bang for their buck, and could serve the community far more effectively, if they had an organized plan of action.

At the NSFRE event, I asked panelists, "What motivated your business to become involved in philanthropy?" Gail Kaplan, president of the Classic Catering People and well-known to many of Baltimore's charities, summed it up for all panelists. "Getting involved in charitable work comes from the leadership of the business."

"We try to do positive things for the community," echoed Jaymie Watts, vice president of marketing for Loyola Federal Savings Bank. "We look for ways to make an impact, to effect change in the community."

Brett Schoolnick, president of the award-winning Baywood Design-Build Group in Columbia, offered a different perspective. Schoolnick's company regularly organizes fix-up projects for regional charities, from the District of Columbia to Philadelphia, although most of his company's volunteer work is centered in the Baltimore-Columbia corridor.

"We look for ways that our involvement can make an immediate difference," Schoolnick told the audience. "We like to apply our building skills to help our community. It's something I believe in." Applying building skills is an understatement in Schoolnick's case. I've personally worked on volunteer building projects he has coordinated, some involving as many as 300 people.

In helping the audience understand what motivates small- business owners to engage in charitable work, Debbie Johnson-Sterrett of A.C.E. Communications, said: "It's just smart business. It sets an example for employees, it can help to bring in business, and it expands your network."

After fielding a few questions from the audience, the panelists summarized their beliefs about community involvement. Schoolnick's comments were accompanied by nodding heads from all the panelists.

"I'm passionate about some causes," he told the audience. "If I can also bring my passion for my work to help the community, that's bliss."

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

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