For most of us, our Small Businesses are not charities – we are in it to make a profit. That does not mean, however, that our businesses cannot be philanthropic. A lot of you may be saying, “Seriously, are you kidding? I don’t have the time or money to help others. All of my energy is spent just keeping my business afloat.” But, even if you are short on time, money, resources, or all three, your business can have a positive impact on your community. This post discusses ways your business can inherently serve the community. Hopefully, it will also make you appreciate how your business probably already does.
1. Be the “Third Place.” Before Bottle Washer and I opened our business, we wanted it to be a Third Place. We broke the rules for our type of business to be sure it was. Our facility is bright and cheery, has plenty of comfortable seating, hot coffee, a welcoming staff, and a diverse client base always eager to stay a little longer to shoot the breeze, talk politics, or complain about the weather. Friendships have formed and rivalries have melted within our walls. You are just as likely to encounter someone dropping off a basket of tomatoes to share or bringing a power tool to lend as you are someone coming in to actually patronize our business. That is okay with us. It hasn’t hurt our bottom line one bit.
You have no idea what a Third Place is? Of course you do. It’s the bar in Cheers, the coffee house in Friends, the beauty salon in, well, just about every show about beauty salons. It’s the no-pressure, all-accepting place everyone secretly wishes they had to go to hang out. It’s the place where you can relax, don’t have to impress anyone, and maybe will even spot you if you are a bit short on cash. The Third Place, popularized in sociological literature by Ray Oldenberg in The Great Good Place and Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: America’s Social Capital, is the location other than home (the First Place) or work (the Second Place) where people gather to socialize, interact, debate, exchange ideas, make new social contacts, and reinforce old ones. It is a center of personal support and civic involvement. Historically houses of worship and municipal properties, like parks and community centers, were the Third Place. As our society becomes more secularized, commercial entities are assuming this role. Friday two of our patrons had a rousing, knock-down, drag-out debate over the accuracy of Fox News vs. CNN reporting. It was getting pretty heated. As they were walking out the door together, one said to the other, ”I don’t know what I would do without this place. I come every day just because it makes me feel better and my problems seem smaller. Even my wife says when I come home I am more relaxed.” That is a Third Place. People want and need a welcoming, nonjudgmental place to go – it could be your business.
2. Provide a livelihood for others. If you have employees, you are already providing a community service - an opportunity for them to financially support their families. Do not underestimate the importance of this act. Recently I watched the movie Courageous. In it one character, Javier, looses his job. He is living so close to the edge that the loss of this job on Monday could mean eviction for his family on Friday. When Javier secures a day laborer’s job, his new employer, who hires him for a week to help build a backyard shed, has no idea of the impact his hiring has on Javier and his family. It literally saves them from homelessness. Even if your employees are not as desperate as Javier, chances are they are not independently wealthy and working for you because they can’t think of a better way to fill their days. Without your Small Business, they would need to find another source of that lost income.
Recently the media was spotlighting a rising young community activist, hailed as the next Barack Obama, who was investing his time in helping impoverished individuals access available assistance programs. A worthy cause to be sure, but I can’t help but wonder: what if this young man had spent that time and effort starting a small business and employing those same people? How would he change and empower their lives then?
3. Provide an essential service or product to the community: If customers are buying your product or service, you are offering something they desire or need. Perhaps they patronize your store because you have the best selection, the best price, or are most convenient for them. But maybe you are the only provider of an essential service, such as medical care. It might be more profitable for you to locate elsewhere, but if you closed or moved your business, these customers would not have access to your product or service.
4. Provide stability or impetus for change to an area. This is often discussed in the context of urban renewal in depressed neighborhoods, where one keystone business spearheads a renaissance. However, it also happens in small towns. Last week public radio ran a short segment about a Vermont bank that decided to open up small branch offices in isolated rural towns. This seems like a misstep. Can a tiny hamlet really support a bank branch? Previously, these residents had to drive up to 45 minutes just for basic banking services, like use an ATM, make a deposit, or cash a paycheck. Guess what the bank discovered? Simply by making a small investment in these villages in the way of a one-person branch, these areas experienced a bit of a resurgence. Suddenly people weren’t driving 45 minutes to do their banking. They were staying in town, and while they were there, they were stopping by the general store to pick up supplies, going to the hardware store for grass seed, and maybe even getting a bite for lunch. A successful small business can affect the economy of an entire town or neighborhood.
Does your Small Business provide jobs or valuable services? Are you a public gathering place where people can strengthen their community ties? Is your Small Business a leader in the economic development of your neighborhood? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you are already doing good while doing well. Part II of this post will give you more ideas to expand your philanthropy.
In what other ways does your Small Business inherently add value to your community?