Strategic philanthropy

Giving back means paying it forward in ways that matter

By Tom Salonek

As the year winds down, many of us stuff a few bucks into the Salvation Army red bucket or make a tax deductible contribution to a favorite charity. It's "all good" and it makes us feel goodfor about a minute. But what about taking a more disciplined approach to giving back? As businesspeople, I believe we should put our strategic planning skills to work and figure out how to make a difference in our communities in a systematic way throughout the entire year.

Sure, Minnesota business behemothsBlue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Cargill, Ecolab, General Mills, Target, United Health Group, and many othersregularly donate millions in cash, products and volunteerism to feed hungry people, improve health, support schools and generally do good in our communities and around the world. (In fact, big companies donated more than $20 billion in cash and in-kind giving in 2012 according to the Corporate Giving Survey, which includes data from 240 companies, including 60 of the largest 100 companies in the Fortune 500.)

But you don't have to run a major corporation or be a millionaire to give back in meaningful ways. Research shows that charitable giving is important to smaller business too: 89 percent of entrepreneurs donate money, both personally and through their companies, according to a study by Ernst & Young and the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund. What's more: 62 percent say giving back makes their companies more successful in the long run, according to the National Federation of Independent Business.

I know this is true at my company. Intertech employees regularly participate in our volunteerism at the Ronald McDonald House, receive company matches up to $100 for their personal charitable gifts, and tell us they appreciate our private company foundation. Some new employees have even told us that our commitment to philanthropy was an important point of difference when they weighed joining us against competing offers from other leading IT firms.

But employee and community benefits aside, I believe there is another, simpler reason to embrace strategic philanthropy. Giving, no matter the reason, is crucial to living a balanced, successful life. Further, I think the very approach taken in giving should be balanced as well. Call it enlightened self-interest, but I believe having a planned, systematic and consistent giving program greatly increases your odds of making a difference, engaging your people and sticking with it.

Intertech's approach has been to create a company-sponsored foundation, which gives financial support to cash-strapped families with terminally ill children. With this year's donation, we will have donated $175,000 since we began the foundation in 2003. While not the millions or billions contributed by large corporations, these dollars are important because they have helped grieving parents spend precious remaining time taking care of, and enjoying their child, instead of stressing out about paying bills. (If you're interested in how relatively easy it is to start a private company charitable foundation, contact me or see the chapter, "Embrace Corporate Responsibility," in my book Building a Winning Business).

As they say in the public radio fund drives, "The amount you give is not important, but it is very important that you regularly give something." While those radio fund-raising marathons can be tedious, they do reinforce the importance of participating financially in the community where you live, work and possibly run a company. It's good for the community, it's good for your employees, and it's good for you!

If you're like most Minnesotans, you probably already understand the importance of giving, but perhaps you're not sure where to begin with company philanthropy. I suggest following four simple tips to make it easy: (1) focus, (2) get resources, (3) involve employees and, most importantly, (4) stick with it.

Finding ways to help is practically limitless, which is why I recommend picking a specific area in which to focus your philanthropy. Finding a fit with your company's mission can be a logical place to start. For example, if your products or services are geared toward younger consumers, consider supporting efforts to help youth gain leadership skills, such as those offered by the YWCA or scouting programs. Or, if you have a personal passion, consider targeting an area that supports it. Other leaders have opened it up to employees and asked for suggestions or even voting to make a decision.

One of the benefits of living and working in our state, with its rich tradition of corporate philanthropy, is the wealth of resources available to help companies get involved in strategic giving. Check out the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and the Minnesota Council on Foundations for information on the many first-rate nonprofit organizations worthy of your company's support.

Involving employees is an excellent way to extend your giving while giving your people a way to get more work-life balance. Volunteerism is an obvious way to do this. While you might lose a few days per year in productivity, you'll reap countless rewards in employee morale.

Here's how it works at Intertech: We throw a birthday party for families staying at the local Ronald McDonald House every few months. Our office administrators organize the food, gifts and employee volunteers. The parties start with cake and games and finish with a piñata (often the recipient of unspeakable violence!), which provide a catalyst for much-needed laughter (kids at the party are either sick themselves or the sibling of a seriously ill hospitalized child).

My hope is that the parties provide a brief moment for these kids to just "be kids." I know all of us head back to the office with feelings of gratitude for our own relatively minor problems. (While not the reason we do it, I'm also convinced employee volunteer activities helped propel Intertech to the first place rank in "employee morale among small IT firms in North America" by Consulting magazine earlier this year.)

There are many employee volunteerism options. A few include participating in Habitat for Humanity projects, preparing food boxes at Feed My Starving Children, collecting winter coats for distribution by the Salvation Army, mentoring/tutoring children in the public schools, trash cleanup outings, and cooking and serving at homeless shelters. You might also offer your business or industry expertise, and that of your employees, to a local nonprofit through board participation.

Giving something back on a regular basis is the right thing to do. It's more important than ever that Minnesota businessessmall, medium and large ones alikeprovide consistent community support, regardless of the state of our economy. It's in all of our best interests to live, work and run businesses in a healthy, safe, and thriving community. Regularly doing our part, however modest, to make it so should be business as usual.

As Winston Churchill once said, "What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?"

Or, more to the point: "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give!"



TOM SALONEK is the founder and CEO of Intertech, a Minnesota based technology consulting and training firm that has won multiple awards for growth and company culture. He completed executive education at the Harvard School of Business and MIT and holds a degree in Computer Science from the University of St. Thomas, where he's also been an instructor. He has written 70-plus articles on business, leadership, and technology, plus the book Building a Winning Business. He blogs regularly at and