How to Grow Your Business by Giving Away (Some of) the Profits
Over the past 25 years, I’ve been lucky enough to give away millions of dollars to charity and to help others. Part of this philanthropy has included funding scholarships for others to further their education.
Scholarships have many obvious benefits, and not just for their recipients. Most businesses that launch their own scholarships do so not just to give back to their community, but also for the promotional possibilities. Yet the benefits don’t end there. Here’s what I’ve done, and how I’ve done it…
1. Scholarships are good publicity
This seems obvious, however, many companies don’t focus on the right kind of publicity. Good publicity isn’t itself a business goal. While it’s nice for people to know you’re a moral person running a good business, strive for publicity that does more than that. Your scholarship should directly reflect the values of your company and, hopefully, lead others to be philanthropic. Here’s my own example.
Debt.com teaches Americans about the best ways to get out from under their credit cards, student loans, auto loans and mortgages. We strive not to be boring while preaching budgeting and saving. Our scholarship is set up to promote those same values, thus it is called The Debt.com Scholarship for Aggressive Scholarship Applicants. If you apply for many other scholarships -- which means you’re thrifty and motivated -- you’re eligible to win $500 from us. Just write a short letter and send us screenshots of your submissions.
Our scholarship is a little eccentric and very meta, so we’ve earned some excellent organic web traffic and backlinks.
3. Scholarships are good business.
Debt.com awards $500 every other month, rather than $3,000 once a year. That works for us since we’re all about saving even small sums of money. It also means we get more applicants and more schools promoting us because we’re giving away money so frequently.
Depending on your business (and the quality applicants), it might be better to issue one large scholarship annually. How do you decide? Let’s discuss that next.
4. Get creative marketing your scholarship.
Consider the purpose of your scholarship and then get creative. Sure, if you’re a real estate firm, you could require an essay on the importance of homeownership in this country. However, you could also market your scholarship as the perfect way to pay for college housing costs.
Likewise, you can limit scholarships to those seeking to enter your profession, but the best scholarships offer both a twist and reinforcement of their values. For example, a company called Wholesale Halloween Costumes offers a $500 scholarship that centers around a Pumpkin Carving Contest.
Meanwhile, the U.S Bank Student Union Scholarship is more like a sweepstake. Winners are chosen randomly, which is unusual enough to capture some attention. Yet if students want to increase their winnings, they need to complete U.S. Bank’s online courses on topics ranging from budgeting to 529 plans. Students are eligible for $5,000 if they complete three courses but they’re eligible for $10,000 if they complete six.
5. Scholarships do’s and don’ts.
Ask anyone who’s offered a scholarship, and they’ll share with you some depressing news: You won’t get a flood of applicants. It seems counter-intuitive, but not a lot of students seek free money. The reasons are often psychological.
For large scholarships, many students think to themselves, “Everyone will apply for that, because it’s so much money, and I don’t stand a chance.” On small scholarships, they think, “Is it really worth my time?”
Don’t expect a flood of applications your first time out. It takes a while for word of your scholarship to spread. Consider assigning an intern to reach out to scholarships.com, which lists a dizzying number of available scholarships. To be seen, task your current social media person or team to add the scholarship to their regular promotion. Create a page on your website that touts both the scholarship and your reasons for creating it. Mention it during any speeches or presentations you make for your growing business.
My advice on what not to do is contrary to what you’ll read elsewhere online. Other articles about creating scholarships urge you to “market it like you would any new product.” They suggest spending money to promote your scholarship but I don't believe that is good ROI. You can slowly build up your scholarship’s profile without spending a dime.
Likewise, a scholarship doesn’t require much staff time. Assign one employee to shortlist the applications to three to five, and then you or someone you trust can pick the winner.
Frankly, this doesn’t take as long as you might think since so many applications are incomplete or poorly done. Again, ask those who administer scholarships. They’ll regale you with stories of dismal spelling, sentences that make no sense and even applications that were intended for other scholarships (because students tend to cut and paste their applications).
Finally, when you choose a winner, get a quote from them that thanks you for the free money and get permission to use their photo. Then, put those quotes back on your scholarship page and blast it out on social media. When students see that others have actually been awarded money, they’re more likely to apply.
Relatively speaking, I spend almost no time and little money on the Debt.com scholarship program, yet it’s paid for itself many times over without distracting my employees from their work. My only regret is that I didn’t start this sooner.