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How to rally staff behind charitable efforts

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The term “conscious capitalism” is spreading throughout the industry, as research points to younger consumers’ preference for brands with a cause.

Of course, supporting a charity almost never is solely a business decision. For many operators, certain charities are a natural pick because they hit on a personal note. For those less sure, consider these factors.

Can employees connect? In many restaurants, it’s the staff who carries the water for the cause. If they are personally invested, they won’t see participation (be it their time or donations) as work, says Laurie Schalow, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Yum Brands.

Chris Himmel, vice president of business development at Himmel Hospitality, which operates three Boston restaurants, searches for causes where the whole team “can drink the Kool-Aid,” he says, so employees are more likely to take time out of their already busy schedules.

To build that connection, Himmel asked the staff at each restaurant to suggest a charity that suits the concept. His farm-to-table spot, Post 390, brings Boys & Girls Clubs members on farm visits; his Harvest restaurant chose Share Our Strength; and his Grill 23 & Bar wanted to work with pediatric cancer patients, so it partnered with One Summit, an organization founded by a friend of Himmel’s that pairs the kids with Navy SEALs.

Getting input from workers at its more than 41,000 restaurants wasn’t realistic for Yum, so a corporate public-affairs team researched and vetted a number of charities before settling on the World Hunger Relief Organization. Then the head of public affairs went to the Sudan and brought back pictures and stories to share with employees company-wide. To keep the motivation alive at the store level where the fundraising takes place, Yum takes franchisees and members of its leadership team back into the field, returning with their own stories to relay. 

Make it easy. At Yum, the home office creates a program for all of its restaurants to use. While some units do extra, such as hosting car washes to raise money, stores simply are encouraged to hang corporate-provided, point-of-purchase materials and ask guests if they want to donate $1 to World Hunger Relief at checkout. Yum initially tried to train all employees to promote its cause, but it has since streamlined the program, incentivizing ambassadors, a few staffers in each store to chair fundraising.

Sometimes the charity itself makes participation easy. This year, Himmel became a Boston-area ambassador for the Eat (Red) Drink (Red) Save Lives campaign. Restaurants offer a red drink during the month of June, and proceeds are directed to the fight against AIDS. The campaign “spells it out for us and lets us spend time on the creative part,” Himmel says.

Know the costs. Despite what is budgeted for the year, Himmel says inevitably another cause pops up that he’d like to support. It could be donating $20 gift cards to a raffle or $50,000 in meals to hospital workers, as his group did in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. “We try to find ways to make them happen,” he says.

Part of the cost is time, and Yum’s challenge was getting franchisees on board with a global effort when they saw problems in their own backyards. So Yum educates operators on where their efforts are directed. It encourages local charity work, too, granting $8 million a year to causes chosen by franchisees and store-level staff.

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