This article originally appeared on June 28, 2016.
Entrepreneurs who serve their broader community talk about the extraordinary outcomes it produces. The four outcomes I hear the most often are: 1) It assists the receiver, 2) it transforms the giver, 3) it energizes the organization, and 4) it renews the community. Let’s discuss each of these in more detail.
1. Benefits to the Receiver
The benefits to the receiver are obvious. Students are receiving mentoring, high-risk children are learning new skills, teenagers who were going nowhere are now going to college, people with illnesses are receiving treatment, adults with physical disabilities are finding employment, homeless individuals are locating shelter, people raised in poverty are becoming self-sufficient, and on and on. Many generous business founders are significantly blessing the lives of the people in their communities.
Even more fundamental than the assistance provided is the life-altering transformation many receivers experience when they’re served by entrepreneurs who have both compassion and vision. Some people need a whole new orientation to themselves and to life to succeed. Fortunately, humans are malleable enough to make life-altering changes when shown genuine compassion and taught essential life skills. Hence, we see students raised in poverty earning college degrees, addicts freeing themselves from their vices, the needy becoming self-sufficient, and ex-criminals successfully integrating themselves into society. These people are miraculously redeemed from lives of struggle and heartache by generous givers.
2. Benefits to the Giver
Equally profound is the impact of giving on the giver. Simply put, caring about others to the point of taking action substantially improves the quality of our own lives. As entrepreneur Mimi Silbert constantly teaches her residents at her rehabilitation company Delancey Street, helping others is the best way to help ourselves. She argues that when person A helps person B, person A gets better; when person B helps person C, person B gets better, and so on. In the vernacular of the street, we say: “What goes around comes around.” Our actions set up a chain reaction of events that eventually come back to us in some form. Ultimately, we learn that we have value and are able to contribute to the world, which gives our lives meaning.
I love the story told by Milton Erickson, an icon in the field of short-term therapy, about the power of service as a natural remedy for improving our lives. One of his patients had an aunt in Milwaukee who was despondent. She was 52 years old, independently wealthy, had never married, lived alone, and had no friends. She read the Bible every day and attended her church religiously, but she would slip out at the end of the service, never speaking to anyone. Erickson agreed to visit the woman on his next trip to Milwaukee. When he got to her home, he noticed three large African violets in full bloom in her sunroom; he knew that African violets, though beautiful, are delicate plants that quickly die if neglected. He told the woman he had some medical instructions that would help her get better if she followed them, and she listlessly agreed to do whatever he asked.
Erickson told the woman to go to a nursery and buy 200 African violets of all different hues and take good care of them. Then she was to give an African violet to every couple that got married in her church, every family that had a baby, everyone who got sick, and every family that experienced a death. The woman became known as the “African Violet Queen of Milwaukee” and had many friends of all ages. She died in her 70s, having stayed happy and productive for more than 20 years. So many people attended her funeral that they couldn’t all fit in the church. This incredible transformation took place after just one visit from Erickson, with no probing into the woman’s past or insight about her personality. She simply found a worthwhile cause to occupy her attention and link her to people in need.
And so it is that giving can transform the giver. When we’re absorbed in our own challenges and activities, we experience a full range of human emotions: anger, fear, elation, depression, joy, and anxiety. When we focus our attention on others, the primary emotion we cultivate is compassion. As we continue to serve, expecting nothing in return, our capacity to care grows to include many individuals, regardless of their circumstances. The entrepreneurs I’ve met over the years who serve others regularly make new friends, develop new skills, enhance their leadership abilities, increase their professional contacts, and feel more satisfied with their lives.
3. Benefits to the Organization
Serving your broader community can have a positive impact on your organization. As mentioned above, it provides a great deal of personal fulfillment for team members who participate, which can increase energy, motivation, and morale within your business. Since many people want to work for a company that’s making a difference, it can also help you attract partners and team members who share your values. The new Millennial generation is particularly interested in social responsibility, company values, and service to the community. Companies that serve a broader purpose may have a real advantage attracting this up-and-coming workforce.
Contributing to your community can also improve the overall success of your organization. If you’re supporting the community and consequently the community is supporting your business, you’ll build a large base of loyal customers. Just being big-hearted, though, isn’t enough to endear people to your organization. You also have to do all the other things successful entrepreneurs do well: Build on your experiences, launch true opportunities, build a strong supporting cast, maximize resources, and give superb customer service. In other words, people won’t buy your products or services just because you’re doing good things in the community; you also have to run a successful and sustainable business.
4. Benefits to the Community
The fourth outcome of serving the broader community is the impact on the community itself. Perhaps most important, building a business creates jobs in a community. This has a positive impact on city revenues and other businesses in the area. Obviously, communities are stronger when organizations are committed to the well-being of their customers and the cities in which they reside.
When I started collecting stories from successful entrepreneurs more than 20 years ago, I expected to find certain common practices, like maximizing resources, building strong teams, and so on. What I didn’t expect to find was a strong passion for serving the broader community. The story I heard frequently went like this: “I had no idea we would be this successful. It’s really our customers who got us where we are today. I would really like to do something for this community.” What the community said in turn was: “This business supports us, so let’s support this business.” So serving the community helped strengthen these businesses, even though this was not their original goal. The fact is, when you serve the same community that’s buying your products or services, the impact on your brand reputation can be significant. Your giving, though, must be authentic and flow naturally from your purpose of being in business in the first place. You must have a genuine passion for making a difference in the lives of others.