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Charitable backlash

Question:

Restaurants get lots of requests from charities to help them out. How do they know they are not going to lose their shirt, or even worse, their reputation, by trying to do a good thing?

– Cate Puzo, Senior Manager, Communications, Share Our Strength, Washington, D.C.

Answer:

If you are a community-minded restaurateur, you have probably noticed we’re just leaving spring benefit season. You are probably out of fingers to count the number of school bands, PTAs, sports teams and non-profits that have asked you for donations, gift certificates, ads in programs and event sponsorship. With a big election year, you can probably add local, state and national political campaigns to the list of support-seekers.

To be sure, there are many benefits to being charitable. Guests may patronize your business in appreciation of your support of various causes, it raises your profile in the community, can bring media attention to your restaurant much more effectively than advertising would and can provide tax advantages, not to mention that it may simply be the right thing to do.

As the recent blow-up with the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood has illustrated, however, making charitable contributions on a controversial topic, or to an organization that makes a controversial decision, can end up doing more harm than good to your restaurant’s reputation.

Too many restaurants lack a strategy for the causes and events that they support. I have heard policies ranging from, “Everyone who asks gets a $100 gift certificate,” to “We support causes that the founding owner would have approved of,” to “We give money to the same groups every year because we always have.”

My advice is to generate a strategy for your giving that management and ownership feel good about and would be confident defending in the face of controversy. For example, you might want to choose one or two main charities to support based on the values of your organization or the values of your guests. Conversely, you may want to make your local community the focus of your giving and support numerous civic groups. Funding employees’ favorite charities can be a way to both give to the community and build loyalty among your staff. You can also choose charities based on strategic partnerships. For example, you may hire employees from a social service agency and want to give back to an organization like that. Or decide on a different charitable project each year.

No matter the causes, develop a strategy you feel good about and stick to it. Do some homework on the organizations asking you for money and be sure that, as in any business decision, the benefits of supporting that organization outweigh the risk. Finally, a good way to insulate your business from your charitable activities is to consult your attorney about starting your own charitable foundation.

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