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How to run a charitable business (without giving more than you can afford)

Lisa Messenger
Entrepreneur

Lisa Messenger is the CEO of The Messenger Group and founder and editor-in-chief of The Collective. She has authored and co-authored over a dozen books and become an authority in the start-up scene

Lisa Messenger
Entrepreneur

Lisa Messenger is the CEO of The Messenger Group and founder and editor-in-chief of The Collective. She has authored and co-authored over a dozen books and become an authority in the start-up scene

In an ideal world we'd all be a member of the ‘Giving Pledge’ – but on a shoestring budget, how can you be generous when you don't have much to give?

After the birth of their daughter, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla announced (via a Facebook post, naturally) they planned to pledge 99 per cent of their fortune to promote equality through philanthopic deeds.

This isn’t the Zuckerbergs’ first act of generosity. The couple previously gave US$75 million to San Francisco General Hospital, setting the bar high in founder philanthropy.

But what about the rest of us? In an ideal world we’d all be a member of the ‘Giving Pledge’ – a group led by Bill Gates who vow to give away the “majority” of their fortune to charity (and have the billions that gets us into that club).

This poses the question – if you’re a business owner already running an overstretched operation, how can you be generous, while still protecting your profits and long-term sustainability of your company? Altruism can have significant brand benefits, and you can be altruistic even when you are financially up against it.

Here are my top tips for running a charitable company – on a shoestring.

Hands holding a wrapped present with gift tag

Donate big data

In March, the tech start-up Trifacta (a data preparation platform) offered its technology and office space for an event called DataDive.

They invited three local not-for-profits to attend a weekend of workshops on how to collect, streamline, analyse and better make use of metadata stores related to their organisation.

It’s easy for them to offer, especially as a business that lives and breathes data, but it’s one that can have significant benefits to the people they’re helping. And it goes a long way to positioning Trifacta as a socially conscious business that’s committed to making the world a better place. 

Offer your expertise

Since 2008, the tech start-up The Nerdery has held an annual ‘Overnight Website Challenge’. During the overnight hackathon, held in three US cities, its web design team builds websites for organisations that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them, pro bono.

It all begins with a ‘speed dating’ exercise that pairs non-profits with the best designer for them. Since the first challenge eight years ago, they estimate over US$5million in professional services have been donated.

And the best part is that replicating it has both business and brand benefits: It’s a great skill-development exercise for your employees. 

Give ‘Kindness Leave’

A growing number of businesses are allowing employees to take a dedicated number of days, in addition to their annual leave, to enable them to volunteer.  

The network solutions provider Ciena gifts all employees one extra day of paid leave per calendar year so they can perform service for a charity or education-oriented non-profit organisation.

Alternatively, organise a team bonding day that incorporates a charity element (beach clean-ups with an organisation such as Responsible Runners or bush regeneration in a national park with a group like Intrepid Landcare). 

Play to your strengths

What does your company have to offer that’s unique and valuable? At The Collective, for example, we donate thousands of copies of the magazine to charities to put in their gift bags at events. It does cut into our profits, but is also (let’s face it) a good sampling opportunity for us too.

Last Christmas, the start-up GiftGram, who produce ‘video gift messages’, offered the service for free to military families so they could send messages home to their loved ones. What is your bespoke product or service, and how can it make someone else smile?

Donate your space

Do you have a spare desk in your office? Why not offer it to a freelancer who needs to escape the solitude of their apartment?

British charity Centric Community Projects offers charities free use of otherwise empty spaces including offices, shop fronts and storage containers. Can you follow their lead and make better use of your unused areas? 

Boost a profile

In our social media-centric culture, publicity has a lot of value. That’s why the online marketplace Fiverr is full of people offering to “Tweet about your charity” for $5. If you believe in a good cause, take a moment to spread the word.

Tweet about an organisation, invite friends to like it on Facebook, or consider adding a banner advert to your website. I even Tweet about my competitors when they do something I think deserves applauds (such as when another magazine comes out with an eye-catching cover). I believe credit should be offered where credit is due, and a genuine compliment costs nothing. 

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