When it comes to giving back to the community, I have found that entrepreneurs are some of the most generous. We give back time, goods and services, money and more. This commitment to our communities is often a reflection of the values of the individual entrepreneur – and the culture of the companies that we start.
But charity is not the same thing as business, and often times the skills and instincts that make an entrepreneur successful in the marketplace are not properly applied to our nonprofit ventures, leaving many corporate giving programs ineffective, unfocused and short-lived. I do not mean to discount the willingness of individual employees and directors to donate time, energy, and money to their communities in the form of traditional volunteerism and charity. However, without exploring ways to fully integrate a company’s philanthropy with its core mission as a business, entrepreneurs are leaving on the table a powerful opportunity for both community building and profit.
At my company, AMSOLAR Corporation, we have worked to bridge two important goals: to build a platform for more efficient localized energy generation; and to promote renewable energy awareness at educational institutions. We do this by providing both innovative solar energy solutions as well as customized solar educational programs to public and private schools throughout the United States, including K-12 schools, community colleges and universities.
For us to succeed long-term, we must look beyond the electricity bill to a more holistic accounting of our environmental, economic and social impact in the community. That is why we created AMSOLAR GIVING — a structured way for us to promote renewable energy awareness, education and exploration in the communities we serve. Over the past year, we’ve conducted a wide range of events and launched a number of unique and timely programs, under this program. We’ve worked with teachers and administrators to engage elementary school students in learning about renewable energy, and we’ve installed solar-powered laptop charging stations at our partner schools. With our partners at University of San Diego, we are even developing a groundbreaking interdisciplinary course teaching students about the economics, law, technology, social implications and many practical applications of solar energy. We also provide renewable energy grants for students and teachers at our partner schools, which allow individual community members to decide how best to promote solar energy in their backyard.
Channeling our philanthropic efforts is an integral part of our business. I feel strongly that a model like this–one which works to align a company’s bottom line with the community’s bottom line–has the most potential for having a substantial, lasting impact. While traditional employee volunteer programs will always have their place, executives should consider designing their corporative giving programs to have the greatest potential to further their companies’ visions. In evaluating a corporate giving strategy, we should ask the following questions:
RELEVANCE: Is the philanthropic project aligned with the company’s mission? The tasks to be undertaken should require the expertise and resources that exist at the company. This is essential not only in furthering the company’s growth efforts, but ensuring a meaningful impact on the community.
RELATIONSHIPS: Can the company get deeply involved in the cause and develop relationships that matter? Companies should consider committing to only a handful of focused initiatives, putting their full resources behind them so that their efforts are lasting. As entrepreneurs we know that lack of focus can decimate a business. Why not apply the same rigor in the context of giving back?
RETURN: Does the community initiative or philanthropic activity stand to drive a fair return on investment (ROI) – in dollars but far beyond, as well? Ideally, the ways in which we give back should also highlight the value of our goods and services, enhance our visibility in the marketplace and strengthen our brand. Properly structured, our giving should drive new business, which in turn creates more opportunities for financial success – and, naturally, more contexts in which to give back again and again and again.
Corporate philanthropy should not be an afterthought. As entrepreneurs we know that focus can enhance the bottom line. Let’s not forget that prudent giving is powerful, too.