“If we are true to ourselves, we can not be false to anyone.” William Shakespeare – Romeo & Juliet 

People have volunteered to help others and donate money or supplies to charities since time immemorial. Giving to others has always had a positive connotation and reflected well on those participating. Business owners often wish to involve their businesses in such giving. Some want to use the notoriety of their business to draw attention to a community’s needs. Others feel that donating a portion of their profits to non-profit organizations is a wonderful way to “pay it forward” and give back to the community that helped them become successful.  

However, there are many strong opinions about this kind of giving, and not all of them are good. For instance, some owners who have promoted a charity clean, donated to a school on their social media received blowback from others online. When business owners publicly donate to a charity, their motives can sometimes be questioned. If not done right, a charity promotion can come across as self-serving at the least and outright deceptive at the worst. Sometimes there are personal ethical concerns about promoting a charitable act as if making the donation public diminishes the value of such a contribution. These may feel that any giving should always remain private and anonymous; otherwise, it ceases to be charity.  

I’m not here to tell you which of these opinions is right or wrong. What I hope to do in this article is break down some of the issues involved to help you make the right decision for your business and conscience.  

First off, let’s discuss the Pros and Cons of each way of giving: 

1)     Private donations – A donation from your business or offering free services to a charitable organization without publicity. 

Pros- A worthy organization receives financial assistance. The act is selfless since no value is received in exchange for the act, and the owner feels the satisfaction of pure giving without receiving anything in return. Other organizations will not contact you for assistance for their cause. 

Cons – The effectiveness of your giving is limited; no awareness of the charitable organization’s needs is made to others who may have been able to also give to the cause. 

2)     Promoted donations – A donation from your business or offering free services to a charitable organization with some form of publicity. 

Pros – A worthy organization receives financial assistance. More people are made aware of a community need and may be motivated to make donations themselves. Your company receives positive press and a good reputation in your community. The people who work and volunteer for the charity are encouraged by the support for their efforts you offer. 

Cons – Receiving publicity for such donations might raise questions about a company’s motive for giving. The donation could come across as simply an advertising purchase, and the owner might feel guilty/uncomfortable being recognized for such donations. They may start receiving requests from other organizations to offer donations to them. 

These are just a few common issues facing an owner trying to decide how to give back. For some people, it’s an easy choice, and they know exactly what side they fall on. Others may be right in the middle and perhaps struggle to decide what to do. While you are trying to make that decision, let me offer some guidelines to help you avoid some pitfalls that might make your donation look selfish: 

  1. If you advertise your donation, you had better follow through with your donation. Nothing makes a company look worse in the eyes of its customers than claiming to make a charitable donation, and later them finding out that you didn’t. Chances are that your company isn’t so big that something like that will make it into the newspaper. But don’t be a sleazeball. If you say you did it, make sure you do it.  
  2. If you are uncomfortable with the perception your public donation might receive, focus on your motives. Let’s face it, there will be business owners who only donate to causes as a form of advertising. However, to assume that ALL business owners make charitable donations for selfish reasons is just wrong. If you are afraid of being lumped into the first group, focus on your motives. How other people act has no bearing on how you act. You may have to endure cynical comments online, but who doesn’t? Ignore the noise and focus on the good. 
  3. If you publicly donate a service, ensure it is the same quality service you would give your customers. When you donate a free cleaning to a charity, the tendency may be to cut some corners or skip some windows, perhaps reasoning that something is better than nothing. But is that what you promoted? If you want credit for donating a service, the non-profit should get that service. Otherwise, include the wording “donated sub-standard window cleaning” in your promotional materials. Cutting corners on a charity clean is like asking them for change back on the $100 bill you bragged about donating. It’s just tacky, so don’t do it. 
  4. If you publicly donate a service, make sure it’s a service that they can actually use and benefit from. It’s great to offer a service to help a worthy organization. However, if they only have two windows in their building, wouldn’t it be more helpful to offer a monetary donation instead? Communicate with the organization to find out what their real needs are. If they do need those 2 windows done and welcome your generosity of including that stop on your commercial route, so be it. However, promoting any charity work that an organization does not truly need can be viewed as a cynical and selfish action by the company. 

I hope this discussion gives you some things to think about when it comes to giving as a business owner. While I won’t tell you what you should do, I will share what I have chosen to do as a business owner. I do both. My company offers charity cleans to several non-profits in our area; we have done fundraisers, been sponsors of events, and many other things that allow us to give back to our community. We promote those events and projects to bring publicity to deserving organizations. However, personally and through the business, I have also made private donations. There is value in both ways of giving. Whatever way you decide to give, just remember ol’ Billy Shakespeare’s quote at the beginning of this article: Be true to yourself, and nothing anyone else thinks will matter.