Contributed Column

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Savvy Relations

It’s OK to say no and feel good about it

by Meg Smith

Remember art history? It was there I learned about pointillism, a technique of painting by which tiny dots of color are applied to a canvas that ultimately blends to form a picture. It’s a slow, painstaking process that requires considerable concentration, most famously illustrated by the artist Georges Seurat with his work, “Sunday in the Park,” a masterpiece that took two years, dot by dot, to complete.  

For a small business, the art of building effective community relations is similar to pointillism, in that it should be a series of focused efforts and small measures that over time relate the identity and reflect the personality of the company. I’ve often heard business owners lament, “I’m asked to give to every cause there is. They’re all worthwhile but we can’t help every person that comes in the door asking for a donation.” 

Nor should you. The nonprofit community is savvy enough to know that not every business can possibly give to every cause. It’s not bad to say “no,” but it makes all the difference in how you say it. 

To take a pulse of your company and find out what’s important to your employees, here’s an easy exercise for any business. It will not only help define and focus a plan that is the foundation of a community relations effort, but also engage people within the company in a positive and inclusive manner. Remember, it’s not the size of your business that is the determining factor for a community giving program, it’s putting a plan in place that makes the difference.

Begin with your employees. Develop a short survey asking staff what personal causes they are interested in, prioritized by importance (e.g., children’s school athletic programs, Odyssey of the Mind, or specific nonprofit organizations). Do they volunteer their time or participate in a local nonprofit? Is there any particular nonprofit they would like to see the company support, be it through in-kind services or a matching employee donation? The survey alone can spark good dialogue and reveal more about your fellow workers than you might have ever known.

Once the information is collected, see if particular patterns emerge. Maybe school causes are a priority for a majority of staff; maybe social services top the list. With the idea that this is a giving program that is reviewed and updated annually, list the top three to five employee causes and circulate the information. From there, you can propose to match employee donations, or give a percentage of company profits to the top three causes, or plan an in-house fund-raiser (softball games or some kind of team sport is always fun) where money is raised for the targeted cause. Or you may find that participating in the United Way campaign is the right place for your company’s efforts.

With a little clarity given to charitable giving, it makes it easier to say no without guilt. For instance, Gardener’s Supply Co. has a clearly defined donations program that supports food, agriculture and hunger-related causes. Another Vermont company, Small Dog Electronics, has developed a novel approach to charitable giving. Small Dog employees select several worthy causes that the company posts on its website, offering to match a customer’s donation to one of the causes up to $200. This customer check-out process has raised $10,000 in a year for causes chosen by staff and supported by customers. 

Once you’ve decided on a plan of giving and how you are going to go about it, it’s much easier to say no to the many worthy causes that come knocking on the door. You can say with a smile, “Sorry; this year we’ve chosen our three areas of concentration for charitable giving. Please keep in touch with us, as next year we’ll be entertaining new choices.”

Over time, those small efforts, like tiny dots on a canvas, will form a complete picture of your employees’ interests and help develop a meaningful community relations program for your company. •

Meg Smith is a public relations consultant and the president of Meg Smith & Co. of Charlotte.

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