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Companies big and small have stepped up their social impact programs in recent years, putting money and momentum behind initiatives designed to build financial equity and support historically marginalized groups.
PayPal pledged $535 million in 2020 to fight economic inequality. Visa established a $10 million Black Scholars and Jobs program with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund the same year. Indeed joined forces with Goodwill Industries International in 2019 to help employ 1 million job seekers who face hiring barriers like a disability, criminal background or an employment gap by 2024.
While large corporations have ample resources to pump into social responsibility programs, Fortune 500 companies don’t have a lock on giving back.
Take Goode Van Slyke Architecture in Atlanta, for example. The 30-person firm is marking 25 years in business with 25 charitable acts.
The company’s good deeds range from assembling dressers for the Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta to donating design expertise to build out new office space for The Empty Stocking Fund, which provides holiday gifts and school supplies to disadvantaged children in Georgia.
The following tips can help companies of all sizes scale up efforts to drive positive change in their communities.
Make intentional investments
Community involvement is ingrained in the fabric of most small businesses, says Matt Wagner, chief program officer at the National Main Street Center Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps revitalize historic commercial districts.
“It’s your small businesses that have been the sponsors of the Little League baseball team, supported the local civic groups, sponsored student scholarships and helped plant flowers and trees along Main Street,” Wagner says. “It’s just what they do. It is institutionalized within owning a small business in a community.”
As your business grows, you want to be more intentional about where to focus your resources. Goode Van Slyke decided to invest in Himalayan Children’s Charities, a local nonprofit that supports children in Nepal, in part because the company's dollars would go further, says Paul Van Slyke, partner and co-founder of the architecture firm.
“When you talk about bang for your buck, we are actively supporting kids in every respect,” he says, noting the organization provides housing, education, food and mentorship for orphaned and abandoned children.
Use your assets
Businesses have three primary assets they can invest back into the community: time, money and expertise.
The Starbucks and Patagonias of the world have ample financial resources to expend, but smaller companies can donate time and expertise, particularly when company finances are tight.
Van Slyke and his co-founder, Chris Goode, partner with local schools and speak at career days — something any business can do.
“It’s not a check, it’s showing up in their schools talking about your business. How you got there, how you worked your way up the ladder, what you do on an everyday basis,” Van Slyke says. “All you need to do is inspire four kids out of 20 a few times and you’ve done something meaningful.”
Companies often look outward to make an impact, but it pays to examine internal practices as well. Consider everything from hiring to wages, benefits and your supply chain.
American Airlines, Facebook and Google all consider qualified applicants even if they have a criminal history. Expanding hiring criteria in a similar manner can be a win-win for small-business owners: You help job seekers in your community and solve staffing issues in the current labor shortage.
Something as simple as where you bank can make a difference. Keeping your company’s cash with a community development financial institution allows that bank or credit union to circulate money back into the community by way of mortgages, personal loans and small-business loans to low-income and underserved communities.
That move can benefit business owners, too, as big banks pull out of smaller cities and pull back on commercial lending.
“Community banks, CDFIs and credit unions have really stepped up in support of small businesses, especially during COVID,” Wagner says, noting that community banks were a key resource for small businesses seeking Paycheck Protection Program loans.
On a larger scale, businesses like Tory Burch and Bank of America have funneled tens of millions of dollars into CDFIs and minority depository institutions to fund loans for female entrepreneurs, low-income communities and historically marginalized and disinvested groups.
How Much Do You Need?
Don’t just pick the cause of the day and throw money at it. Instead, look for something that aligns with your company’s values, skills and talents, says Bridget Weston, CEO of SCORE, a national volunteer organization that offers free business mentorship.
“It does need to be authentic,” Weston says. “Clients and customers know if a business means what they’re doing and is really passionate about that cause.”
Businesses big and small can leverage partnerships and piggyback on the work already being done in your community to maximize your efforts.
Overwhelmed? Don’t feel like you have to swing for the fences.
“These things don’t have to be home runs,” Van Slyke says. “Small efforts here and there really add up to turn the ship.”
Need more inspiration?
There are countless ways to get involved in your community. Here are just a few things businesses can do to give back:
Donate leftover meals and produce to organizations that support people who are food insecure or experiencing homelessness.
Provide free haircuts to kids during the back-to-school season or for unemployed people interviewing for jobs.
Mentor other entrepreneurs through organizations like SCORE.
Volunteer to write the newsletter for a local nonprofit or community organization.
Offer flexible leave to support working parents.