Aaron and Evan Steed were busy high school athletes looking for a job that wouldn’t interfere with their practice schedule. They found it in 1997 when a family friend needed help moving and offered $20 and a pizza. The brothers enjoyed the work and wanted more, so they dubbed themselves Meathead Movers and blanketed the neighborhood with flyers; their high school’s pay phone became their office line.
The first inquiries came from family friends and neighbors. Then strangers. And then, the unexpected: domestic violence victims, both women and men, who had little money but needed to quickly flee a dangerous situation. As more victims called, the Steed brothers realized they’d found a logical cause: moving these people for free. “It was pretty obvious that this was an important thing for us to do,” says Aaron Steed, CEO. “I can’t think of a more impactful way for a moving company to utilize their services. You’re potentially saving a life every time you do it.”
By finding a way to help their community, Meathead Movers joined a growing movement of entrepreneurs who make philanthropy a part of their operations. It’s good citizenship, but it’s also good business: 64 percent of customers prefer to buy from socially responsible companies, reports a study conducted last year by Good.Must.Grow., a Nashville-based marketing agency for socially conscious businesses. And it isn’t overly complex or challenging to create a program -- all you need is the right intentions and helpful partners.
Steed estimates his San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based company has moved thousands of domestic violence victims free of charge during the past two decades. Today the $11 million company, which has four Central California locations and more than 200 employees, partners with seven regional domestic violence shelters. Last year, his company extended its service: Now, in addition to moving abuse victims into these shelters, it will also move them out and into their next home.
In all, free moves account for just 1 percent of the company’s jobs, Steed says. But he credits the homespun giveback program with inspiring employees, improving corporate culture and scoring points with surrounding communities. To him, it’s more meaningful than sitting on a philanthropic board or writing an annual check. “You’re getting your entire organization involved,” Steed says. “It’s a pure donation because the services are going directly to the victims.”
There’s no one way to create a successful philanthropic program that resonates with customers. But the following five tips will get you started.
1. Choose the right cause
It’s best to champion a cause that naturally aligns with your product or service, whether you run a pet-gear company that donates leashes to animal shelters or a taxi fleet that give free rides to cancer patients. That way, you guarantee it resonates with your customers -- they already care about the subject, after all -- and doesn’t seem tacked-on or forced. “You have to flex those entrepreneurial muscles to figure out what’s going to make the biggest impact,” Steed says.
If you have philanthropy in mind as you launch your business, that’s great; it can become part of your introduction to the world. That’s what THINX did. The company sells women’s underwear designed to stop leaks during menstruation, and said upfront that for every pair sold, it would donate money to AFRIpads, a Ugandan organization that trains female ’treps to sew and sell reusable menstrual pads to girls in need. Miki Agrawal, co-founder and CEO of THINX, says this inspired people to help the company -- from drawing in backers who contributed to its 2013 Kickstarter campaign, to recruiting its first employees and customers.
But it’s never too late to adopt a cause. Salad dressing company Tessemae’s All Natural, which launched in 2009, waited several years before developing Crop Circles, its initiative to bring free pop-up farmers markets to U.S. food deserts. According to Todd Fletcher, Tessemae’s vice president of marketing, starting the program later gave the company time to cultivate the farming and produce-packaging contacts needed to mount an ambitious multisponsor initiative. “We wanted to make the initiative bigger than any one single sponsor or company,” Fletcher says. “All these different companies could donate a manageable amount [of food], and no one person felt like they were shouldering the burden of all of the expense.”
2. Build partnerships wisely
Unless you’re a bona fide expert in polar bears or child malnutrition, you’ll need the help of a social service organization with boots on the ground to execute an ambitious philanthropic program. There will be many to choose from, so take your time, and choose a partner whose mission and image fits with yours. “It has to be brand positive for both parties,” says THINX’s Agrawal.
When meeting potential partners, outline the type of assistance you’ll need from them and what goods, services or resources you’ll contribute in return. A written memorandum that details the parameters of your relationship is essential, says Steed of Meathead Movers. In 2001, as his team was moving a domestic abuse victim, the abusive partner showed up and accused the company of stealing. After that, Meathead Movers began partnering with domestic violence shelters. Now when the company gets a call asking for help, it refers the caller to one of its partners. The shelter arranges for a safe moving time and helps the victim secure the necessary counselling, legal services, school transportation for their children and other social services.
This partnership isn’t just a matter of off-loading responsibilities. To start, you must agree with organizations on the messaging you’ll use to promote your giveback program. “You can’t just say whatever you want,” Agrawal says. “They have to approve it.” And listen to your partners’ recommendations for how to improve the service; they’ve likely done this longer than you and know the needs of the population better. “You don’t know all the answers,” says Fletcher of Tessemae’s All Natural. “It’s more a mentality of, ‘I’m riding shotgun on this one. This isn’t about me saving the day.’”
3. Get employee buy-in
Ensure that staff members understand and support your charitable program. “It’s important that this is something that lights up your employees when they talk to their friends and family about it,” Steed says. If they’re engaged, they’re more likely to want to contribute their own time and efforts—which will make your impact even greater.
That’s how Matthew Manos, founder of the Los Angeles-based design firm verynice, helps as many people as he does. Since 2008, the company has donated half of its services, performing nearly $4 million worth of free work for organizations in need. Designers, copywriters and strategists actually reach out to Manos, asking how they can be part of the pro bono team. “We’ve always had people come to us,” says Manos, whose volunteer network includes 400 freelancers.
And as your program gets more attention, other companies will reach out as well, asking for advice on setting up their own programs. Encourage those people to talk with their employees, as well. One owner of a fledgling Texas business called Steed looking for guidance; he also ran a moving company and wanted to make a similar offer to Meathead Movers’ but didn’t think he could afford to donate his services. But when the Texan turned to his team for input, he found that his workers wanted to volunteer during those moves. “That’s supercool,” Steed says. “You’re giving your employees an opportunity to give back.”
4. Promote authentically
There’s a thin line between sharing the details of your giveback program with the world and shamelessly milking it. Telling the story of how you came to champion your pet cause will help you sound genuine but be careful not to make the message entirely about you and your big heart. “The result is not you having the best day of your life in Africa,” Manos says. “It’s, ‘This is exactly what we did and what we accomplished,’ and recognizing that there’s more to be done, too.”
After Meathead Movers’ efforts were mentioned in LA Weekly last September, their story reappeared in scores of online, print and broadcast media outlets worldwide. Rather than use that attention to promote his business, Steed created a web page, video and the hashtag #MoveToEndDV to enlist other ’treps to help domestic violence victims. So far, more than 90 other small businesses—law firms, storage centers, beauticians, physical therapists and others—have pledged via Meathead’s website to donate their services.
5. Build your program organically
Giving back doesn’t have to decimate your bottom line. Fletcher of Tessemae’s All Natural advises starting small, donating only as many goods, services or hours as your business can handle. Tessemae’s Crop Circles initiative accounts for about 15 percent of the company’s marketing budget and is handled by the company’s three marketing staffers. “In my perfect world, there will be a point in the next three years where this initiative will have its own team that focuses on it 24/7,” Fletcher says.
Of course you’ll want to plan and carefully think your program through -- but you should feel free to launch it even if it’s not perfect. Learn as you go and tweak as needed, much like you did when fleshing out your startup thesis. You have the skills to improve: As a ’trep, you’re already hardwired to devise innovative solutions on a dime, including in the name of philanthropy. “That can be terrifying, especially for a startup, when you want to hang on to as much cash as you can,” says verynice’s Manos. “But maybe there is a way that you can give some product, or some mentorship or some advice. There are just so many ways to make an impact that don’t require you to write a check.”