Generosity comes from the heart. It needs to be in all your actions, especially when your company is small and even if you feel that you don't have a dime to spare. I started my first company with the money in my back pocket. My office had no windows and looked like a closet. I learned to be thrifty just like anyone building a small business. I shopped for card tables and chairs at Costco so that I would have office furniture.
I also learned that giving back didn't need to be a big splashy event nor did it need to involve a lot of cash. It was about looking around, in my own community, family, employee base, and seeing who needed a break or a little help to get them through a difficulty in their life. I learned that it's about people.
In a small company you have to focus first on the success of the company. As part of that, success of the employees is important. Building a culture that supports employees outside of work, including their philanthropic initiatives, is a critical component of employee success.
What I Learned
1) Be a Role Model
At Bill.com, my strategy is to be a role model on giving. I understand that this can be tough. Giving back is a personal and, in many cases, a private matter. The dilemma is balancing the purity and privacy of a charitable donation with making the effort public so that others can share in the giving. Giving back may be so personal that you may feel uncomfortable talking about it.
To illustrate how personal it can be, I will share my private family values that I developed with my wife and two boys (11 and 9). They presented me with the plaque for Father's Day this year that puts the family values we developed together inside of a frame: responsibility, gratitude, love, respect, sense of humor, generosity, optimism, curiosity, passion, perseverance.
Philanthropy exposes a private and sometimes vulnerable side. There's a risk of philanthropy saying more about me than I would normally share in a business context. I've come to terms with this dilemma.
Being vulnerable and publicly stating where and to whom I give helps others to feel more comfortable being and doing the same.
2) Be generous with yourself
Be generous with yourself and it will help your company to grow. Although this may sound odd, I believe that you need to take care of yourself first before you can be generous with others. Think of a situation where you are flying in an airplane and you are reminded to put your oxygen mask on first and then your kids. Although my advice is counterintuitive to being generous, I believe it is a good reminder of how generosity starts from within.
3) Pull together Team Building activities around giving
At Bill.com we took the opportunity to team up with people that we don't normally work with closely at the company and help local food banks organize and distribute food. It gave people a chance to, maybe for the first time, strike up a conversation with a co-worker they wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to talk with and get to know each other while supporting a great cause. This team approach also engendered a great competitive spirit for sorting, packing and stacking the most food for distribution. As the teams worked together, employees shared how the same food bank had helped their family many years ago. It was extremely moving and helped all of us see the bigger picture.
4) Center the program on gratitude
Gratitude is one of the most powerful emotions. I have found that it opens one's heart to all sorts of experiences. A strong motivation for a philanthropy program is to empower employees to be grateful for what they have and in that spirit say, "thank you," to the community. During our participation in a Second Harvest Food Bank volunteer project, many of the staff were reminded of all the things to be grateful for in life.
5) Stay away from religious or political charities at a company level
Volunteer efforts should unite employees in a common cause. It connects employees at a deeper level. As such, I align our company-wide volunteer efforts to neutral efforts that focus on helping the less fortunate. One of our favorite projects was for the company to volunteer at the Homeless Garden Project
6) Provide a forum for employees to raise awareness about causes they care about
My company has a section in our internal newsletter that showcases volunteer efforts. This is led and written by a couple of our managers in our support organization. I also encourage staff at company meetings to give their opinions to me. Employees need to feel emotionally invested in the cause and sometimes the cause hits very close to home. For example, whenever there is a natural disaster and people have families affected, we mobilize and give.
7) Make sure no one ever feels pressured
These philanthropic initiatives or programs absolutely need to be a volunteer effort where people are engaged in giving back for no other reason except because they want to. I suggest putting extra effort into making sure people don't feel any pressure to participate from managers or leaders.
Our company raised over $2,000 in 48 hours for ALS by participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge. It all started when I was challenged by a good friend. I responded and challenged employees to participate within 24 hours. I was impressed and honored that so many responded so quickly to such an important cause. The donations from the staff were done privately and not disclosed. The activity was fun, helped a great cause, and brought us together.
In addition to extending the challenge to the employees, I challenged a good friend Brad Smith, the CEO of Intuit. He responded and helped to bring many of the Silicon Valley companies in the accounting software industry a bit closer together.
I've found that these guidelines help to create a culture where employees are more aware of their connection to a global community. They feel a stronger bond to each other, our communities, and people everywhere. For philanthropy to be successful in a small business, it needs to come from within. All leaders in a small business put themselves into their work. The surprising thing I have learned over the years is that to sustain success, we need to take care of ourselves, share our gratitude (verbally and through giving) with our employees and enable them to reciprocate. That openness creates a foundation for every interaction in the company and is at the core of a truly great culture.
And in my book, a great culture is the basis and measure of success for any business.