7 Strategies to Help Entrepreneurs Make Sensible Political Donations

It doesn't take a tremendous investment of time, effort or money to get politically engaged and make your business interests known.

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By Lyneir Richardson

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With the FCC's ruling on net neutrality and President Trump's tax bill at the top of the news, it's apparent that politicians' decisions have significant influence upon the financial well-being of business owners. These decisions, which can affect entrepreneurs of all sizes and in all industries, happen not just at the federal level but at the state and local levels as well.

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With this reality in mind, it's imperative that entrepreneurs become informed about laws and regulations that are being discussed by elected officials that can impact the profitability of their businesses. By staying on top of these developments, business owners can learn about the specific positions of policy makers whose actions will influence whether a particular resolution is good or bad for their companies, their employees and their own personal wealth.

I've been involved with local government and I've also owned businesses, so I'm very familiar with both sides of the equation. Based on my experience, here are seven essential strategies that can assist entrepreneurs to financially support politicians who will share their views, represent their interests with integrity and deliver good government service:

1. Be a joiner.

One of the best ways to learn about current and upcoming national political decisions that will affect your company is to become a member of national organizations that represent your industry. For example, I'm in the real estate investment business, and I find great value in being a member of the International Council of Shopping Centers and the Urban Land Institute.

Related: Should Small Businesses Speak Out on Controversial Topics?

To gain awareness of state and municipal developments, get involved with state and/or regional trade groups and local chambers of commerce. By learning the details of what's being decided and when, you'll then be able to network with your contemporaries to discuss which politicians are in line with your interests. This will allow you to formulate an informed support and donation strategy.

2. Always pay by check.

A cash contribution of any size to an elected official, political candidate or the staff members of either is viewed by the law as a bribe -- so don't even think about doing it, even if your intention is harmless. Pay with a check in order for your donation to be legal, transparent and ethically appropriate.

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3. Understand the limits and magnitude of your contributions.

For state and national elections, if you write a small check in support of a candidate, you'll most likely be invited to attend a campaign event, shake hands with the candidate and hear him/her make a speech about why he/she is running and what he/she will do for the business community. Write a bigger check and you might be invited to a small side room at an event for a cocktail reception and a photo op with the candidate. Write an even bigger check and you'll likely get all of the above plus the opportunity to have a short conversation with the candidate, and your name will be listed as a member of the campaign finance committee or as a host on the event program.

While small business owners as a whole can deliver sizable financial support to a candidate, it's important to recognize that individually, the opportunity for access is only so great, especially when compared to the much more significant contributions made by corporations and lobbyists.

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4. Graciously seek value from your contributions.

Early in my career as a real estate developer in Chicago, I contributed $500 to the campaign of a candidate running for city council. After he was elected, he helped me by providing a reference letter for a construction contract that I was pursuing. When a city agency delayed processing my invoice for over five months, he made a call that got me paid.

The lesson here is that, in the business context, political contributions are different than charitable donations: When you write a check to help someone get elected, you can request access to the elected official who you supported. Recognize, however, that your financial support does not give you the right or ability to abuse that access. If your request is reasonable and justified, having a relationship with elected officials can be a valuable business asset.

Related: How to Include Politics in Your Marketing Without Turning Anyone Off

5. Know the possible meaning behind what a politician tells you.

A bit of tongue-in-cheek wisdom:

When you ask an elected official for help on a particular issue, if that politician says yes, he/she likely means maybe.

If that politician says maybe, he/she likely means no.

If that politician says no, he/she likely won't be a politician for long.

The point is to be prepared and have a back-up plan. Politicians cannot always deliver on promises made.

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6. Budget for and spread out your political contributions.

If earmarking $1,000 per year for political contributions is affordable for you, build this expense into your annual business budget. However, rather than making one large donation every year, write $250 donations to four different politicians, which will allow you to attend four fundraising events. This approach will make it possible to network with other business owners, tell campaign staffers about your business interests, and explain how what you do is beneficial for the community. It will also provide you with exposure to the politicians and an opportunity to build valuable relationships that will support your company's objectives.

Related: How One Entrepreneur Built a Successful Business by Identifying a Need in His Community

7. Don't play down the importance of your role as a check writer.

Regardless of how little you contribute to a politician, you're still a check writer, and you should be respected. It's like shareholder meetings: If you own a million shares of Google stock and I own 10 shares, we're both going to be invited to the annual shareholders meeting in Mountain View, Calif.

It doesn't take a tremendous investment of time, effort or money to get politically engaged and make your business interests known. By keeping these seven simple tips in mind, you'll be able to not only make sensible donations, you'll also be able to network smartly and contribute to the long term viability of your business and industry.

Lyneir Richardson

Executive Director of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development at Rutgers Business School

Lyneir Richardson is instructor, professional practice in the Department of Management and Global Business at Rutgers Business School in Newark, N.J. He also serves as executive director of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (CUEED), a research and practitioner-oriented center at Rutgers Business School. He is the CEO of Chicago TREND, a social enterprise focused on catalyzing retail development to strengthen urban neighborhoods, that has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation and Chicago Community Trust. 

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