Small Steps

(Originally published in the Puget Sound Business Journal, May 17, 2013.)

Corporate Citizenship: Local businesses learn that small contributions do make a difference

Colleen Buck and Jody Bossert are not Melinda and Bill Gates. They don’t have a vast family fortune, but they do have a thriving family business, and they wanted to give back.

The mother (Buck) and son (Bossert) are co-owners of Elle Marie Hair Studio, which has three salons in the Seattle area. And when someone from the Mill Creek Youth Advisory Board approached them about contributing in some way to a prom fair at a local high school, they jumped at the chance.

“I heard on the news that a prom costs an average girl eleven hundred bucks,” Buck said. Dresses are a big part of the expense.

So Elle Marie Hair Salon tapped into their community of customers to collect oldie but goodie prom dresses for local high school girls who needed them. “There are a lot of women now out of high school with prom dresses in their closet and they can help the next generation of prom-goers”, Bossert said.

They did. Customers brought a total of 270 dresses to the three salons, which had a contest to see which could bring in the most. The winner: Lake Stevens. “They’re our smallest, but they knocked it outta the park,” he said.

But the real winners were the girls who selected prom dresses in Mill Creek’s Jackson High School auditorium, tried them on in the teachers’ lounge, and brought them home.

“It’s nice seeing the direct benefit in the community,” Bossert said. “It’s a little more rewarding in my book than handing over a check to somebody.”

Many small and medium-sized businesses contribute to their community in similar ways. With so many pressing needs in our society, do such small steps really make a difference?

They do, said Joe Lawless, Director of the Center for Leadership and Social Responsibility at the University of Washington’s Milgard School of Business in Tacoma.

“Every big step starts with a small step. Sometimes getting employees involved in solving a problem is a much better benefit than writing a check,” he said.

Community involvement serves two purposes: It engages employees in solving community problems and helps them develop leadership abilities.

And employees who are engaged with their communities stay longer, reducing costs to the company.

Studies have shown that socially responsible companies show a better financial return over the long haul. Most famous is a Harvard Business School study that tracked performance of 180 companies over 18 years and found that firms that adopted environmentally and socially responsible policies performed better than those that didn’t. A dollar invested in one of the socially responsible firms in 1993 grew to an average of $22.60 by 2011, compared with $15.40 for other companies.

It takes time to see the results of giving back.

“Corporate citizenship is not something that has immediate payback. It’s like reputation – It’s a long-term investment,” Lawless said.

The research is on Fortune 500 companies, not small businesses. But common sense says the same principles apply.

“It’s about aligning your values with those of your consumers,” Lawless said.

Companies have always sought to do that, but what has changed is the availability of information. Through Yelp and other sites, customers have a treasure trove of information about a company, both good and bad, at their fingertips.

“They’ll reward those that are in alignment with their values and punish those that aren’t,” Lawless said.

Some companies choose to partner with nonprofits that fit their business mission in some way.

Aveda, a beauty-products maker that uses organic ingredients and environmentally friendly packaging, teams up during Earth Month with Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit created to clean and protect the waters of the Sound. The Alderwood Aveda salon hosted a “facials for water” program in April, in which money for the treatment was donated to the Soundkeepers.

“I feel great about it,” said Aveda team leader and facialist Katie Poole. “I feel like I’m making an impact.”

Local Aveda salons joined a world-wide Aveda Cut-A-Thon on Earth Day, April 22nd, with regional proceeds from haircuts donated to the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. The Alderwood store raised $700. Regional Aveda staff hope to exceed last year’s $120,000 regional total as part of a worldwide push for a Guinness World Record for most money raised by haircuts in 24 hours. (Yes, there is such a thing.)

Providing people with a service, especially one with a personal touch, is a great way to solicit donations, Poole said.

“People like to give, but they like to have some pampering and wellness in return, too,” she said.

Volunteers from Aramark, a food services, facilities management, and uniforms company, use their expertise to partner with Neighborhood House, a local nonprofit set up to help low-income communities attain self-sufficiency, independence and better health.

“Community centers’ greatest areas of need are Aramark’s greatest strengths and core areas of professional expertise: nutrition and wellness, job readiness and facilities management,” said Aramark’s director of corporate responsibility communications, Mary Rucci.

Last summer volunteers from Aramark joined Neighborhood House staff to build picnic benches and planter boxes in West Seattle’s newly redeveloped High Point neighborhood. Aramark also plans to host healthful-eating cooking demonstrations there.

“A lot of our community members don’t speak English, so demos go a lot further than handing them a piece of paper,” said Miryam Laytner, director of development and advancement at Neighborhood House.

The company has also hosted job fairs, resume reviews and mock interviews for residents. It will be taking some neighborhood kids behind the scenes at some of the places where it does catering to give them a feel for what such jobs are like.

“They have a lot of expertise in-house,” Laytner said. “We love working with them.”

In addition to giving to charities and doing community work, local businesses are regularly approached by nonprofits and schools for donations to specific projects. Many give, but it can get hard to keep track of all the requests and donations.

“All businesses see far more donation requests than they can manage,” said Karrie Hungerford, who with her husband Lance is CEO of four Round Table Pizza franchises in the Puget Sound area.

The Hungerfords found themselves giving away pizzas right and left, especially during the recession. When they sat down to do their books, they remembered a few things, like giving 10,000 pizzas to a library program, but realized they couldn’t account for all of their donations. “We really had no idea,” Hungerford said.

Other business owners she talked to said the same thing. Many were charging donations to the marketing budget or giving in-kind. Both are hard to track. The Hungerfords realized businesses needed a way to share their giving and manage requests.

Her background in IT gave her an idea, and after two years of labor, thousands of dollars of investment, and much trial and error, GIVINGTrax was born in October 2012.

It’s cloud-based technology that enables small and medium-sized businesses to manage their donations, volunteer activities, and marketing for a cause. They can also press a button to share information on Facebook and Twitter when they get involved.

Nonprofits can join for free to create donation requests that will go out to local businesses. Businesses pay $12.95 to $49.95 a month. GIVINGTrax is not nonprofit itself, but it helps nonprofits as well as businesses.

“Small and medium-sized businesses are at the backbone of our community,” Karrie Hungerford said. “They give so much, and nobody knows.”