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March 9, 2007 / Toby Dayton

Why Small Businesses Should Give Back

Last night I attended a panel discussion hosted by the Collaborative entitled “Minnesota’s Philanthropic Tradition and Its Future.” It was an excellent event, selling out with an attendance of more than 350 people, and perfectly representative of why Dan Carr and the Collaborative continue to bring enormous value to the Twin Cities Business community. On the panel, moderated by Vance Opperman, were Lauren Segal, CEO of the Greater Twin Cities United Way, Michael Gorman, a Partner at Split Rock Partners and a member of the Itasca Project, Eric Dayton, one of the founders of The L.E.A.D. Project, Steve Bloom, founder of Social Venture Partners, and Chris Shea, President of the General Mills Foundation. As the panel discussed the Twin Cities’ changing business and philanthropic environment, a few thoughts occurred to me about the role small businesses can play in philanthropy.

The Twin Cities is renowned for being one of the most generous, philanthropic communities in the country, thanks to incredible corporate, foundation, and individual leadership. Companies like General Mills, Target (which gives away more than $2 million per week), Medtronic, Best Buy, and 3M give hundreds of millions of dollars every year to terrific causes and non-profit institutions both locally and nationally. And while that extraordinary generosity has been tremendously valuable to our quality of life, the strength of our community, and the character of our city, it has also created a challenging set of circumstances for small businesses. As I listened to Chris Shea rattle off the statistics about General Mills’ corporate giving, which included $20 million in donations and tens of thousands of hours of employee volunteer time in 2006, I began to realize how intimidating it might be for small businesses to try to stack up against those numbers. It is also easy to see how small businesses could get complacent and simply let the Fortune 500 companies carry the load. Given how substantial corporate giving is here in Minnesota, small business executives can easily wonder how their tiny drop in the bucket could possibly do anything to help improve the overall fabric of our community. Building a successful business is tough enough already without having to think about philanthropy, volunteerism, and donating scarce cash and profits to charitable causes.

But the reality is that the needs in all our communities are greater than ever before and cannot be left to others to tackle, no matter how generous and civic-minded those others might be. And not only is giving back to the community the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense. Study after study has shown that companies that demonstrate consistent civic-mindedness are more successful, and the same reasons that make it good business for Target and General Mills to give back to the community apply to all businesses, no matter how small. So my advice to any small business is this: run an annual United Way campaign. Shut your business down for a day so that employees can volunteer at a local charity (or if you have to, do it over two days and send everyone in two shifts). Make giving back to the community a part of your business objectives for the year, every year. Imagine the collective good that would occur if every small business in your city donated money and time to the community.

Being in a small business, I know how hard it is to do. “We can’t afford to be closed for a day….our customers won’t tolerate it…..we need the revenue…..we don’t have time…..we’re too busy already….I ask my people to do enough already.” But just try it one time, in earnest. I guarantee you that you will discover how easy it is to actually do and how valuable it is for your business. Not only will you survive the down-time, but you will discover that the time spent giving back to the community becomes the single most important time of the year for most of your employees. They will talk about it before and after to their friends, their families, your customers, your vendors, and their peers. The faces around the office the next day will be prouder and happier. The energy level will be higher, the enthusiasm more palpable. Volunteering as a company builds teamwork, creates a shared experience, fosters leadership, and instills compassion and character. Are those not the qualities you desperately crave every day throughout your company?

At the end of the year, your employees will most likely not remember the day they approved the ’08 budget or reworked some element of your operational workflow. But I assure you that they will remember the day they poured concrete and laid the floor of a garage in a house for a low-income Hmong family or bagged groceries at a local food shelf. So the question is not can you afford to donate time. The real question is how can you afford not to?

[tags]Small Business, Charity, Why Small Business Should Give, Employee Morale, Support Non-profits, Volunteering, The Collaborative, United Way[/tags]

One Comment

  1. LuckyAdam / Mar 9 2007 3:14 pm

    You made some great points and I agree 100%. Every little bit helps. You can sit and complain about the world, or you can make even a small effort and try to make a positive difference.

    If I may, I’d like to plug an organization that I have been involved with for many years, they are called Loaves and Fishes and have been doing good things for the community for more that 20 years now. Check them out at http://www.loavesandfishesmn.org

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