An Independent Voice: Charity begins close to home

From cancer centers to marching band uniforms, independents find creative and meaningful ways to support their communities.

By Jane Olszeski Tortola

When visiting Coborn’s Inc., Grocery Headquarters 2001 Independent Retailer of the Year, I was reminded of the good works that independent grocers across the country do every day to make their communities better places in which to live and work.

From the renowned Coborn Cancer Center, which focuses on treatments and cures for pediatric cancer, to Kishman IGA’s enthusiastic support of the Minerva High School Band’s Marching Lions in Ohio, the giving is endless.

There is no doubt that charitable giving is a priority for these store owners and thousands of others who are the first to credit their hard-working associates and loyal customers for making all of the giving possible. But, they also stress the importance of having a well-defined stewardship plan in place.

According to retailers both small and large and charitable giving experts with whom I have recently spoken, there are a number of imperative details to consider when developing a successful charitable giving program.

Here are a few of them:

Do it for the right reasons. All of the experts I spoke with agree that donations should first and foremost be viewed as a chance to do something good for the community, not as a tax deduction. The reasons for giving should be altruistic.

Check up on the charity. While as a successful retailer you feel blessed and want to share your prosperity, be sure that your charity is a qualified organization, educational institution or non-profit entity. Otherwise, you will likely receive no tax deduction.

Set a budget. If you are a small business or one that’s just been established, consider selecting one local chartity, especially during the first couple of years. Perhaps it is an organization in which the majority of your employees are involved, or a project that will benefit most of your customer base. However, do not put your business at risk by donating to causes when the money is not budgeted.

Product vs. cash. This decision is extremely important for your brand image. Many prosperous business owners donate only branded product to charitable causes and never donate cash.

Develop internal procedures. Perhaps one person in your company determines which organizations receive contributions, or it may be decided by a committee. Whichever is the case, make sure there is a process in place.

The process must include a written application that must be completed by all organizations seeking contributions. Your corporate giving guidelines should also appear on the application. Many times, those seeking donations can determine when reviewing your guidelines whether or not their cause aligns with your overall charitable goals.

Question everything. When approached for a donation of any kind, ask yourself, “In what way will this contribution enhance my brand image and reputation, help me to increase top line sales and even help to make employees feel more proud to work for our company?” If your answer is lacking in these areas, seriously question whether you should write that check.

Additionally, ask how much of your donation, if cash, will be allocated to cover administrative costs of the charity vs. actual programs.

Do due diligence. When qualified charities seek a contribution from you, feel free to ask them to share the names of others who have given to the cause and how much. Contributions to legitimate charities are part of the public record in most cases.

Make time to visit. Walk the halls of the organization seeking contributions from your business and make sure your goals are aligned with the goal of the charity. Pledge to charities that you believe have affinity and will provide positive exposure to your business.

Generate positive PR. By all means, do not be shy about publicizing your good works. Customers and community leaders like to associate themselves with businesses that give back.

Keep in mind that the positive PR extends to those working with you in your store. Involve employees in charitable activities and let them know that they have a voice in the way money will be spent in the community. Consider allocating so much per department or so much per store that employees can collectively distribute to worthy organizations.

That goodwill gesture alone will contribute immeasurably to the strength of your company.

Jane Olszeski Tortola, a regular columnist for Grocery Headquarters, devoted more than three decades of her career to working at a family-owned supermarket company founded by her late father. She is a graduate of The Ohio State University and is active in a number of food industry organizations. She can be reached at

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