A line of people, each of them wearing a light gray hoodie or T-shirt, extends away from the viewer. Each person stands in front of an open cardboard box, which they are packing. Closest to the camera are two women. The one on the left has her hair in a ponytail and is laughing. The one on the right is writing something on a clipboard and smiling.
Charity can involve much more than writing a check to an organization. You can donate your time and expertise, and encourage employees and customers to do the same. — Getty Images/SDI Productions

Charitable giving can generate a lot of goodwill among your employees and customers alike. However, the way you talk about your charitable involvement can be tricky. There’s a risk that sharing information about your corporate social responsibility comes off as self-promotional or insincere.

Giving back is a win-win for your business and your community. Make sure you’re sharing your story in a way that resonates with your customers — and doesn’t come across in poor taste.

Make sure the cause aligns with your brand

When you choose an organization or cause to support, look for one that mirrors the values and mission of your company. Restaurants, for instance, can donate to local soup kitchens or volunteer to pitch in at a community vegetable garden. If there’s no natural fit, talk to your employees about causes and organizations they believe in. You’ll boost employee engagement and develop a list of meaningful organizations to support.

[Read more: 5 Small Business Owners on How They Give Back to Their Communities]

Make a consistent effort

Donating money once is nice; donating time, money, and in-kind support regularly is better. Find ways to integrate charitable involvement into your day-to-day business operations.

Patagonia is well known for its brand activism and charitable involvement. Among many other efforts, the outdoor apparel retailer has pledged to give 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. While this may not be feasible for your small business, consider other ways to make charitable involvement consistent. For example, you could offer your employees paid volunteer time, donate a portion of sales to a nonprofit, or give customers loyalty points for supporting a cause you believe in.

Encourage customers to get involved

Share your enthusiasm for supporting a charitable cause with your customers. Timing is everything. Rather than speaking about what you’ve already done for the charity, communicate what you plan to do and invite others to join in. Put the cause or organization front and center. Talk about why this organization deserves the spotlight and what your customers’ support would mean to the beneficiaries of the charity.

People's perception is that brands that sacrifice relatively more of their earnings seem more generous.

Elizabeth A. Keenan, assistant professor of business administration, Harvard Business School

Let others speak on your behalf

Ideally, you’ll let others market your charitable involvement for you. As Forbes recommends, “[E]ncourage customers to promote your efforts with hashtags and shoutouts over social media. Talk to your employees about supporting your efforts via their social media accounts. Ask the nonprofits that benefit from your giving to highlight your charity work on their websites and social media pages.”

Share this type of user-generated content on your own channels to get the news out there without coming across as self-promotional.

Give in meaningful ways

Contributing to a charity doesn’t have to mean giving money. You can also donate your time, equipment, and expertise. If your small business is running on a budget, think about meaningful ways in which you can help organizations in your community. Professional mentoring, marketing help, event space, and even secondhand technology (like old laptops) are welcome at many organizations, and these donations show your customers that you’re going above and beyond writing a check.

[Read more: What Is Corporate Social Responsibility?]

Craft your messaging carefully

Finally, a study by Harvard Business School found that consumers respond differently depending on how you frame your charitable contribution. When you share that you donated a certain amount proportional to your earnings (for instance, 10% of our sales go to x) versus a dollar amount ($10,000 will go to x), the customer responds more positively.

“People's perception is that brands that sacrifice relatively more of their earnings seem more generous,” said Elizabeth Keenan, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “There's some goodwill associated with that type of generosity and therefore, people are more likely to prefer those brands over others.”

However much or little you choose to donate will be meaningful, as long as you donate in the spirit of giving back — rather than in the spirit of improving your own brand.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published August 10, 2022