Building a Business
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How to Manage Your Brand’s Community Involvement

This post was written by a guest blogger. To learn more about them, check out the bio below.
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Here’s a snapshot of the moment when I almost lost my cool and came this close to physically attacking someone in my shop. That is, if I were the sort to physically attack someone, which of course I’d like to believe I’m not. Mostly.

The haughty, judging words were, “Well, I thought you’d do it for the community, but I guess that doesn’t interest you.”

This comment was meant to incite me, and, it worked. The words came from the mouth of a person who had never darkened the door of our business and who has since never returned. His demand, which was framed as a request? That we offer 50% discount on everything for members of a neighborhood association.

Fifty percent? Are you kidding me? We don’t have the margins!

“No,” I said, and began to offer a polite explanation but the man interrupted and attempted to bargain down the percent like a bully extracting lunch money from someone in a headlock.

That’s when he dropped that sentence and I lost my cool — and gave him directions to the door. Nobody puts this baby in a corner, especially not in her own corner store!

My husband and I own George Bowers Grocery, a neighborhood retailer/café/beer garden in Staunton, VA. At that moment, by my own calculations, we had contributed quite a bit to the community. Building a business is hard enough — why endure a self-righteous bully?

Like with most independently owned businesses some of this contribution to community is monetary: taxes paid, people hired, storefronts filled. There’s even greater community contribution that is largely invisible to the average person — which is true for most small businesses.

For example, our business and others like it serve their community through donating (time, product, or service), volunteering (in events or on boards), and mentoring. Public-facing businesses have an additional burden of community service responsibility that is often overlooked, but a necessary contribution nonetheless. Businesses like ours provide the occasional dose of encouragement, advice, counseling, or comfort that forms the basis of all community ties. Why are hair salons and barbershops courted to get out the vote or educate people on health issues? It’s because these public-facing businesses play a necessary social role, too!

So, yes, I was incensed at the suggestion that we weren’t contributing to the community.

So let’s look at how we, as business owners, can manage our commitment to serve our community with the very real demands of building a strong business. There are limits to what you can do without endangering the survival or success of your business. To solve this paradox it is important to be proactive.

Here’s how to approach community requests that protects your interests, too.

Make a plan.

Think about how you’d like to support your community in the upcoming year. What would you like to change for the better? Will you donate your time? Your product or services? Which organizations, groups, or causes are dearest to your heart? How much can you give and when? Look at your personal values, as well as what your business represents as a guide.

I suggest writing this up as a document at the beginning of the year so you can revisit it later. It’s motivating to track your progress to see how much more you’re giving every year. A side benefit is that this document serves as a good reminder to you of the difference you’re making — a great thing when times are tough. Remember: Giving your time counts too.

Then write up your schedule — in your calendar — and follow through to make it happen.

Will you share these contributions publicly or will your contribution be done privately?

You can derive great marketing mileage tying your charitable or community contribution to your products or services. Who can complain if your efforts support community efforts such as literacy or health initiatives or stray animals?

However, choose carefully. Have you discontinued your support of an independent business because they openly tied contributions to political or religious views you don’t share? I have. Don’t risk alienating customers. Choose to support something non-partisan and secular, if you’ll be promoting it.

Have your response ready.

This is so easy to say with sincerity when you’ve made a plan and followed through: “Thank you, but I plan and schedule my charitable contributions at the beginning of each year.”

Community contribution opportunities exist for online businesses and brick-and-mortar businesses with a strong online presence.

Businesses with a strong social media presence can contribute by sharing community news relevant to their audience. We frequently share updates about new, local businesses opening or other community events on our website, blog and Facebook page, for example. Social media can also be a forum for engaging conversation, and offering community assistance, just as you would in person.

Micro-businesses operating inside or outside the home can also play a role in building stronger community ties and strengthening the local economy. These businesses can benefit from the added exposure that is shined on a business through community involvement. This is especially true for online businesses. Getting out and into the world builds brand awareness offline, which can create a virtuous circle.

Finally, remember that community involvement is necessary for growing a small business. There are places to cut expenses but this isn’t an area to make cuts. There is truth to the well-worn phrase, “What you give is what you get,” so approach this aspect of your business with the generosity it deserves.

And as for those people who are not your customers or who rudely come asking for time, services, products, or discounts?

Accept that most people don’t own businesses and therefore cannot appreciate the struggles, demands, or sacrifices necessary to run one. When a person comes asking for a donation they may not even realize that their request could be a true burden to your business. If you can accommodate, do so. But do not allow anyone to guilt or manipulate you to give in a way that won’t allow your business to grow, or, let alone survive.

 

Katie McCaskey a freelance small business journalist who writes for Vistaprint, a leading provider of customized websites for small businesses all over the world. Katie is also the co-owner of George Bowers Grocery, a neighborhood grocery and café in Staunton, Virginia.

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