When it comes to philanthropy, start small, think big

  • Article by: LAURA FRENCH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 15, 2011 - 10:22 AM

Even the smallest companies can make a huge difference. Here's how.

Minnesota's big corporations have made a major commitment to philanthropy. Target, General Mills and others give millions of dollars every year and support thousands of hours of volunteer efforts. But Minnesota's small businesses far outnumber the giants, and even the smallest company can make a major contribution. Here are some tips for getting started, and some role models:

Focus on causes that are a good fit with your company's skills and abilities. You can always give cash, but think about the talents and resources you have to share. Craig Sinard, a Minneapolis filmmaker, shoots videos for the United Way. Laura Mullen, an event planner in Minneapolis and Duluth, provides discounted rates for one or two non-profit events a year. She also has a stash of elegant event décor that she can lend to a good cause. And Mullen includes eight hours of paid volunteer time in her company's employee benefits package.

Marty Ruddy and the crew at Terra Firma, a St. Paul design and construction firm, rebuilt four of the outdoor toilets at YMCA's Camp Widjiwagan, near Ely.

For Ruddy, the volunteer project was a natural way to give back what he'd gotten from years as a camper and counselor at Widjiwagan. "I loved the whole experience of leading kids on wilderness trips, the teamwork, traveling to remote places and challenging the kids," he said. "A place that paid me to go on camping trips? I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Construction was a continuation of the camp philosophy; somebody was willing to pay me to do physical work that I like doing so much, it didn't feel like work."

When someone from the camp called and asked if he could help with rebuilding the outdoor toilets, Ruddy readily agreed, as did a number of Terra Firma staff members who had also attended the camp. "Other people can write bigger checks, but we can give a few days of our time," he said. "They fed us, gave us a place to sleep, let us be there."

While outdoor toilets may not sound like a glamorous project, Ruddy says, "The 'biffies' represent the camping experience. In the cities you have flushing toilets and running water. There it's one step further from the amenities."

Involve your employees. Giving and volunteering can be a team-building activity that multiplies the effect of the donations and contributes to company morale.

Rami Derhy, owner of Signal Auto Care in St. Paul, was looking for a way to give back to the community a few years ago when a friend told him about the need that area food shelves have in late summer and early fall. Throughout the summer, giving goes down just as school lunches stop, increasing the need. So Derhy started a "Free Brakes for Food Drive," now in its seventh year. Anyone who brings in a full bag of food or school supplies gets a free brake inspection and free installation of brake pads or shoes.

In 2010, Signal Auto Care collected 8,253 pounds of food and $1,486 in school supplies and provided more than $28,000 in discounted services to customers in return.

"For the last three years, there was so much demand that it took through end of October to get the work done," Derhy said.

He tells all of his employees that they don't have to donate their time, but "nobody has said, 'I don't want to be part of it.' We appreciate that we have a job and an income so we can give something back. They don't have to give cash out of pocket, just time."

Measure your contributions. Modest Minnesotans may not feel comfortable keeping track of the value of their contributions. But as with any activity, it helps to have a goal in mind. And if you measure your contributions, you're more likely to increase them year after year.

One way to do it is through the Minnesota Keystone Program, an initiative set up in 1976 by 23 Minnesota companies to encourage charitable giving in the state.

The program provides measurement and recognition for companies that contribute at least 2 percent of pre-tax earnings in the form of cash or in-kind contributions (professional services, employee time, computer and copying services or products).

The program is run by the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, and participation is free.

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