Guidance for Giving Back
In Petaluma, we’ll turn just about any activity—eating, exercising, even facial hair grooming—into a fundraiser. And on the flip side, we’ll turn every charitable event into a party replete with amazing food, artisanal beverages, and as many interesting people as we can pack into a room (or boat or city park or boulevard).
Petaluma’s business community embraces this philanthropic mindset, giving away millions of dollars each year in services, products, space, equipment, volunteer time, and cash to nonprofits in town.
Here are tips for making philanthropy a part of your Petaluma company’s formula for success.
Develop a Plan
“Business owners should be as strategic about their philanthropic efforts as they are about their marketing or business development initiatives,” says Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center and a former venture capital executive. “Establish a goal, set a budget and create deliverables to ensure you get the most value from your donations.”
Thoughtful planning will help your businesses respectfully navigate what can be an overwhelming number of donation requests. In the long run, it also helps your favorite nonprofits run more smoothly.
“When companies plan, I can plan,” explains Hempel. “Knowing ahead of time how much a company can commit helps me focus my fundraising efforts more efficiently and, ultimately, serve my clients more effectively.”
Include Your Employees
Employees should be seen as a valuable resource in developing a philanthropic strategy.
They can steer you toward or away from the groups they’ve had personal experience with, as well as alert you to unexpected needs in Petaluma and beyond. Conversely, in their role as company representatives, employees have the ability to communicate your philanthropic goals and policies to the world.
Engaging employees in a conversation about giving back, asking their opinions, even giving them a chance to give back in ways that feel right to them can help ensure that every conversation employees have about your company’s philanthropic work is clearly articulated and positive.
Check Values, Financials, and References
In a world with so many good causes, it can sometimes be difficult to choose which ones to support.
An important part of the planning process is defining the values you want to support with philanthropy. These might be related to your industry, your products and services, or your target market.
CamelBak, for example, gives money for projects focused on water and environmental conservation; this aligns with the company’s products (hydration bottles and packs) and market (outdoors enthusiasts who value the environment). World Centric primarily funds projects that address basic human needs (food, water, sanitation, housing, education, and economic development) in the developing world, a focus that reflects founder Aseem Das’ personal commitment to this cause, as well as the company’s origins as a nonprofit.
Outside those parameters, both CamelBak and World Centric support local nonprofits – particularly schools – through generous product donations. This serves multiple purposes: supporting local causes, putting branded products in the hands of potential buyers, and forwarding the respective missions of each company.
“We welcome requests for in-kind product donations from nonprofits and K-12 schools in Petaluma and throughout Sonoma County, as we seek to make it possible for any organization to choose eco-friendly disposables for their events,” says Annie Davis, director of partnerships at World Centric.
If you’re considering a major gift or sponsorship, be sure to meet with the organization’s director and at least one board member. Review the nonprofit’s financials so that you know what percentage of funds are distributed directly to the cause vs. administrative/overhead costs. Finally, check with trusted sources (such as business colleagues or employees) to vet the nonprofit.
Notes Aseem Das, founder and CEO of World Centric, “We tend to support smaller grassroots projects, where most of our dollars go directly to the cause (vs. overhead) and where we think our donations can create the biggest impact.”
Understand What Nonprofits Really Need—and What You’re Willing to Give
Should you give frozen turkeys or cold hard cash? Should you send a single employee to staff an event or arrange for a group to help out and turn it into a team-building exercise?
The answer depends not only on the nonprofit but also on the time of year and the type of event.
Some nonprofits need dollars more than anything else, while others, like school PTSAs, welcome product donations that can be turned into cash through a raffle or auction. Some volunteer opportunities require no training or special skills and are therefore perfect for team-building. Others are not appropriate for groups because they require training or skills, involve vulnerable populations or are just better served by one or two volunteers.
“It sounds fun to show up en masse and paint the side of a wall, but at the end of the day, the nonprofit gets a poorly painted wall and the company gets a poorly executed team building exercise,” says Hempel. “Even events like the United Way Day of Service can wreak havoc, as nonprofits must spend time managing volunteers instead of serving clients.”
It’s always a good idea to ask the nonprofit what it needs, and then really listen. Hempel says there’s no offense intended when a nonprofit declines a product donation or cannot accommodate multiple volunteers; in fact, a well-connected director is usually willing to help the company find a better fit.
In the same vein, companies shouldn’t feel bad saying “no” to requests that don’t fit their guidelines or budget.
“When a company says no to a specific request, I usually ask what it can give now or at a later date,” explains Hempel. “Often we’ll find a way to match our needs with the company’s ability to give.”
Promote, Promote, Promote
Every one of your company’s philanthropic activities represents a choice. You could have spent that dollar, product, or hour of employee time somewhere in your company. Instead, you made an investment in the community.
Nonprofits recognize this and therefore are more than willing to see your generosity publicized. In fact, this kind of exposure helps them—lending credibility to their cause, getting their name out in the community, and even nudging your competitors to make a donation.
Keep in mind that many nonprofits do not have staff dedicated to marketing or communications. When they need to chase down your logo or draft a press release announcing your generous donation, it can hamper their ability to achieve their mission. The more marketing support you can offer, the better. At the very least, you should provide a current company description and logo, as well as any prepared message you’d like included in a press release or on their website, not just once but every time you write a check or make a donation.
“Our supporters give from the heart and give generously,” says Hempel. “We want them to link their business to their philanthropy, so they can leverage their gifts and make their businesses more successful.”
Hempel cites Lagunitas Brewing Company as a “brilliant” example of how growing a business and supporting charities go hand in hand. Lagunitas began donating kegs of beer and event space to local fundraisers soon after the company moved to Petaluma, in 1998. Back then, Lagunitas had only been existence for three years, had just a handful of employees, and was not widely known. Thousands of locals had their first taste of Lagunitas at a fundraiser; the combination of a great-tasting product and the community focus helped founder Tony Magee and his team turn those first tastes into a rabid fan base.
“It’s great to hear someone mention that they had our beer for the first time at a non-profit’s event and how it meant so much to them that we supported something that was personally important to them,” explains Karen Hamilton, Lagunitas’ director of communications. “It feels good to do good and we have found that it’s really great to work for a company that not only cares about people, but also cares about the things that people care about. It’s an invisible fabric that binds us all together.”
In full agreement is Vanessa Bergamo, community resource manager at PEP Housing, a nonprofit that provides limited-income seniors access to affordable quality housing with supportive services and advocacy.
“Lagunitas donated their beer garden, proceeds from all beer sales, and a portion of wine sales for our fundraiser ‘Pups for PEP,’” explains Bergamo. “It’s heartwarming to know there are companies in Petaluma that understand the importance of supporting non-profits and their missions.”