From Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates, the titans of American business have long been associated with impressive acts of philanthropy. So impressive, in fact, that an entrepreneur sweating the budget for the company picnic might think that charitable giving is something to address down the road--like, posthumously.
But the days when your charitable impulses were expressed as clauses in your will are over. Today, you can pursue a huge range of charitable endeavors even if you don't have any actual money to give.
"Philanthropy may be age-old," says Eileen Heisman, CEO of the Philadelphia-based National Philanthropic Trust, "but how we act on it has changed a lot. You can instantly crowdfund a charity just by tapping your social networks, even if your personal contribution is relatively modest."
Some people go further, arguing that philanthropy shouldn't be a point-and-click side project but an integral part of your business. "Community engagement should be part of every entrepreneur's business plan," says Mark Feldman, founder and managing director of Cause Consulting, a Boston-based business-strategy firm. "It's great for employee morale, productivity, and brand awareness, and it helps define your corporate culture."
Apparel maker Life Is Good enthusiastically ticks all those boxes. "We make T-shirts, but one of our founding mantras was to make the world a better place as well," says co-founder John Jacobs. "Our charitable efforts have increased our sales and helped us forge important long-term business relationships."
Thinking Outside The Greenbacks
Increasingly, business leaders don't think about charities in terms of writing checks but as causes that can unite employees, customers, and communities--and make people feel good about helping in a variety of ways. Blake Mycoskie, founder and "Chief Shoe Giver" of Toms, started out by donating one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair purchased. Since 2006, Toms has supplied more than 10 million shoes to impoverished children, and it has taken the same concept to its eyewear line. "Having a purpose behind our products creates a passionate, engaged, and loyal customer base," Mycoskie says. "Our customers are our biggest evangelists--they spread our story far beyond what any traditional marketing would."
For other companies, the focus isn't on far and wide so much as on near and dear. Marty Tuzman, president and CEO of Jenkintown Building Services, a Philadelphia-based exterior building maintenance company with 90 employees, donates the company's services to local causes. "Some of my guys dressed up like Spider-Man and visited the local children's hospital," he says. "We recently did free window cleaning for a homeless shelter after they told us how great it would be to brighten the environment for women who are in some pretty dark places. One of my employees got choked up--he couldn't believe that he was in a position of giving."
Light on Cash? Not to Worry:
As Inc. columnist Naveen Jain, founder of World Innovation Institute, Moon Express, and InfoSpace, has noted, "Philanthropy is not about giving money but solving problems." Solving big problems, he says, has a lot in common with building large companies: Disruption, innovation, and sustainability are the keys to success. Money is part of the equation, he says, but without entrepreneurial "zest and agility," it won't be enough.