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9 Ways Your Business Can Make the World a Better Place in 2014

You know you should give back. Follow these steps to make the biggest impact.
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"Doing well by doing good," is one of those catchphrases we've all heard about 1,000 times too often. But it's true that helping the community around you (or even far away) brings real benefits to your business that go way beyond the PR boost it can provide.

To learn more about why and how to be of service to the planet, I talked with Katherine Austin, owner of Karma Yoga in the Detroit suburbs. For the last several years, her business has supported a number of community efforts, including Habitat for Humanity, Freedom House, which assists political refugees, many of them from Africa, to relocate in the United States, and Urban Farming, which turns abandoned lots into vegetable gardens and teaches inner city residents how to grow their own food.

Although she didn't plan it this way when she named her studio, "The phrase 'karma yoga' means to be of service," she says. "Because we're in the yoga business, we understand how energy works, and money is a form of energy," she says. "It benefits any small business that gives--you will receive. You're not doing it for that reason, but that's how universal laws work."

Austin observed before she opened her business, that an owner's attitudes around money and generosity trickle through the whole organization. "If there's fear around revenue and profit, you'll be afraid to be generous," she says. But if you see the world as abundant and you're fearless about sharing what you have, that attitude will emanate from your business as well, she says. "We say in yoga, 'You become what you practice the most.'"

If this makes sense to you, but you're not sure where to begin, here's Austin's advice:

1. Start small.

"Don't jump in too fast or too soon," Austin advises. "Start with one organization and build a strong relationship." That's what Austin did with Urban Farming; she only began adding other groups a couple of years ago.

2. Don't think only in dollars.

Cash donations are great, but there are likely other things your company could donate such as you and your employees' time, surplus inventory, expert advice, and so on. Austin, for example, offers free yoga classes as part of her donations. One long-planned free class held at Detroit's riverfront turned out to take place on the day the city declared bankruptcy, which brought out a lot of people and brought her a lot of attention. You never know where your donating might lead.

3. Pick something that aligns with your business...

For Austin, Urban Farming made a lot of sense. "It was natural for the yoga world to align with health and wellness and healthy eating," she says. "Find an organization that aligns with your business' mission and what it speaks about."

4. ...Or something that really calls to you.

But it also makes sense to give to an organization addressing a problem that you feel passionate about. While building houses for the homeless has no obvious connection to yoga, Austin felt compelled to get involved with Habitat for Humanity after she heard a harrowing statistic: The average age of a homeless person in metropolitan Detroit is 9. "I just couldn't handle that," she says.

5. Don't fake it.

Yes, you'll get benefits from helping the community, but don't make your giving decisions based on what you're hoping to get out of them. For one thing, that attitude will come across. "You want it to be authentic or from your heart," Austin says. "That's how you should choose."

6. Make it easy for employees to get involved.

At Karma Yoga, $2 from every yoga mat sold is donated to Urban Farming. In addition, all the studio's yoga teachers have the choice to donate a portion of their pay to Urban Farming. Most do, including Austin herself.

Karma Yoga has written a check to Urban Farming every month since Austin started the program, and some of the checks have been substantial. "They've told us there have been some months when we saved them," she says.

7. Don't embarrass anyone.

Austin does not disclose which of the teachers donate to Urban Farming and which don't. Sometimes a teacher who's been donating stops for a while due to financial pressure, and then resumes. "I love that they can decide to be in or out, and nobody knows who's donating and who's not," she says.

8. Let customers get involved too.

Karma Yoga students can join in its community work in several ways. For instance, every year the studio holds a boot drive for Freedom House where students buy boots fo residents. (African refugees rarely arrive with appropriate clothing for Michigan winters.) "They love purchasing boots for the refugees," she says. "Our students want to get involved as well."

9. Relax!

"Trust that the right organization--the one you're supposed to work with--will present itself," Austin advises. "If you start working with a group and for some reason it's not the right fit, that's OK. The right one will come along."

Small or large, it's both easy and important to contribute to the community, she adds. "It is so important to give because we all have so much and are so blessed," she says. "I travel to India every year and that's always eye opening. I come back and see how blessed we are. We can all do something, whether it's a little or a lot."

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IMAGE: tcd123usa / Flickr.com
Last updated: Jan 6, 2014

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, The Geek Gap

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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