Many entrepreneurs think that the community should be supporting their business when, in reality, it’s a mutually beneficial feedback loop that starts with the business owner. That is, the more community outreach you do on behalf of your company, the more likely it is that your business will grow and thrive.
Let’s use Jeff, who owns and operates a franchised cleaning company, as an example. He has a squad of 20 or so professional cleaners who vacuum and dust both office buildings and private homes. I met him through a chamber of commerce breakfast while I was a communications director for a government agency. We became friendly, and I started to see him throughout the community.
Not only was Jeff active with the chambers of commerce in our community, but he also sponsored Little League baseball teams, donated to local nonprofit community organizations, and even held fundraising events for families who needed help. I saw Jeff and a small group of his employees when I volunteered for the post office’s food drive, and I saw him with a different crew when I worked on the Toys for Tots campaign over the holidays.
Jeff recognized that community outreach went hand-in-hand with small business growth, but it was clear to me that many of his peers didn’t see the connection. It can seem counterintuitive to support people who are not yet your customers, including those who aren’t in your target audience. Those families for whom Jeff raised money certainly couldn’t afford professional cleaners — yet his help was likely motivated beyond just the kindness of his heart.
Here’s why helping your community helps grow your business: By giving your team members opportunities for community engagement, you’re helping to develop leadership skills, strengthen your reputation and trustworthiness on a regional level, and expand business connections that can foster leads and sales.
When you create community service opportunities within your business, you and your employees make a measurable difference in the community — and your bottom line, too.
The power of community outreach in business growth
In 2022, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report stating that 80% of small business owners in America incorporated a clearly defined mission that included community service. And these businesses didn’t just talk — like Jeff’s team, they were active in making a difference at community events.
The report indicated that these businesses fostered community interaction by:
- Encouraging employees to shop locally
- Donating to charities
- Sponsoring local events
- Offering discounts to certain community groups
- Establishing other businesses as community partners
Company community outreach programs are more popular in businesses owned by Gen Zers or millennials when compared to businesses owned by baby boomers. According to the report, women-owned and minority-owned businesses also give back at higher rates.
While Jeff doesn’t fit into those categories, he still understands the power of community outreach. He sees a direct connection between his work to support social services and the growth of his business. He told me that community outreach is his main marketing strategy because networking alone brings in more business than any ad could.
How do businesses benefit from giving back?
Tracking community outreach efforts and their effect on your business is a good idea as it can help determine what types of service bring in more customers. However, there are many other ways that business owners see an impact from community outreach ideas.
Enhanced brand visibility and recognition
One of the most common examples of small businesses giving back to the community is sponsoring fundraising events held by civic organizations.
When I worked for a nonprofit, we often partnered with small businesses to donate money, goods, or services for the event itself or a complementary fundraising raffle. In exchange for the donation, the business would receive recognition. This could come in the form of:
- Having banners hung at the event
- Receiving a mention in the written program
- Being highlighted on social media
- Being honored by the master of ceremonies over the microphone
- Having a logo featured on signage
Simply put, this exchange allowed the business to enhance its brand recognition among all the event participants. The community — including the organization’s employees, board members, fellow donors, program recipients, and any resident who happened to come — would see that the business worked with a cause they cared about. Those overlapping values were often motivation enough to do business.
Stronger customer loyalty
When you and your team actively support a community group or attend outreach events, you signal your company values to your current and potential customers. Your values and mission statement are part of your brand identity, and that’s a big reason why people may choose to do business with you over your competition.
You likely experience this on a personal level. Let’s say you loved animals, and tomorrow was your spouse’s birthday. If two businesses sold the same type of gift but one was very active in supporting animal charities, which would you choose? Chances are, you’d go with the business that shared your values.
When there’s an emotional connection to the community, shopping can be a pleasure that goes beyond the simple transaction. That’s how you build customer loyalty that lasts a lifetime.
Boost in employee engagement and morale
Jeff, who ran the cleaning service, had a particular interest in supporting local charities that worked to end domestic violence. That’s because his franchise recognized that a percentage of team members had personal experience with it. When he created a community giveback project based on something meaningful to his team, he helped people in need and boosted his team’s morale.
Volunteering and fundraising can be powerful team-building experiences. It can be fun to work in collaborative spaces to make a difference. I mentioned seeing Jeff and his team at a Toys for Tots event. That day, we “shopped” with parents who couldn’t afford presents for their children. With our help, they could choose from donated toys they knew their kids would love. It was a feel-good day that built community resources and put a smile on everyone’s face.
Strengthen partnerships and alliances
Another way that community outreach helps improve your bottom line is through the opportunities that come from collaboration with civil leaders or other community stakeholders. Since business is all about relationships, strengthening partnerships almost always results in some level of lead generation.
Even just sharing your voice in community discussions will put you and your company squarely in the center of what’s most important to your neighbors. When people working for the greater good see you as someone they can rely on, you can build alliances with community leaders — and even become one yourself.
How to build a community-oriented business culture
Integrating a community ethic into your business must come from the top down, and talk isn’t enough. You must do more than organize a few events, have your human resource team send an email, or hold a meeting to share your interest. The community culture must support this important goal.
Integrate community values into business objectives
Start by clarifying your interest in supporting your community in your business plan, mission statement, and values. One way to do this is by brainstorming with the Golden Circle Theory, which highlights less what you do and more why you do it.
When your purpose is to be a supportive member of the community, your team members can understand why it makes sense for them to care, too.
Create sustainable community outreach programs
Once you have created a foundation for the importance of community in the work you do, you can build upon it with new infrastructure. This can be in the form of community outreach programs that can change quarterly or last for years.
Many kinds of programs facilitate giving back to the community, and it’s important to integrate ones that work best for you and your business. Be creative and have fun as you brainstorm ideas.
For example, Jeff offered employment services for people struggling to get work, in part because there wasn’t too much training that went into his industry. If you have a more complex business, you could offer apprenticeships.
Align community efforts with business goals
Whatever you decide as you craft your community outreach program, make sure every decision is based on your values and long-term business goals. Look for charities that support — or are supported by — your company’s target audience. Ask about branding opportunities when other community groups approach you for donations.
Remember, however, that making a difference in the community supports the overall reputation of your business rather than serving as a means to an end. You can’t expect short-term metrics to document a return on investment. Consider community outreach to be an investment in the community as a whole rather than just your company — even though both benefit.
Strategies for effective community outreach programs
Once you’ve committed to participating in community outreach programs, follow these strategies for developing initiatives that are best for you, your team, your business goals, and the people, animals, and environment where you live and work.
Identify relevant community needs and causes
Just as Jeff pledged time and resources from his company for domestic violence causes, see if specific needs within your community relate directly to your industry or company.
If you own a retail shop that sells designer gowns, maybe you could organize a donation for teens who can’t afford prom dresses. If you own a restaurant, perhaps you could hold a fundraiser to support feeding families who are going hungry. If you make jewelry from natural stones, you could save a portion of your sales for environmental causes.
Wherever and whomever you decide to help will likely be grateful for you and your team’s time and support.
Engage in meaningful and impactful activities
Beware of the act known as greenwashing, which is when a company spends more time and money marketing its environmentally friendly reputation than actually doing anything to be better for the environment. This can occur for charities that have nothing to do with being green. It’s essential to be mindful of walking the walk instead of just talking the talk.
How will you know if your work is making an impact? Like everything in business, you can measure it. Look at the number of people you are helping, the amount of money raised, or specific actions that change due to your company’s efforts. Set goals for your community service work and encourage your team to work together to exceed them.
Leverage employee volunteerism and expertise
As you begin investing time into meaningful community service, check in with your team. They may have strong connections with certain civic groups or know of a need that your company can meet with ease. When your employees feel heard and supported within a collective community ethic, they’ll be more likely to participate in volunteering opportunities, too.
Use your community outreach to strengthen your team by acknowledging skills, too. If your employees are handy with power tools, they may want to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. Ask them what they care about and how you can all work together to make a difference.
Get started with community outreach and unlock its benefits
Creating a community outreach initiative for your business helps improve the morale of your team members, makes a difference in the lives of people around you, and positions your company more favorably in the increasingly competitive marketplace. It’s worth the time to align your business values with practical actions demonstrating results for your community.
As a first step, create a survey or organize an informal meeting with your team members. See who has direct connections with community organizations or personal experience with certain causes. Gather information about the needs and opportunities around you and see how you can connect your company in a way that builds up your community and your bottom line.