Navigating the tricky world of charitable giving

How restaurant operators can make charity an important part of the business without allowing it to take over.
Illustration: Shutterstock

Charitable efforts are a fantastic method for restaurants to connect with their communities and engage in social responsibility. But charity can also be challenging: Which causes best align with our mission? How do we say yes to one fundraiser and no to another? How do we find the time to handle the requests? Operators share their tips for making charity an important part of the business without allowing it to take over.

Select specific types of causes to support

At IHOP, which has raised more than $30 million for charity partners, corporate partnerships fall into one of two buckets: health and wellness, or education efforts involving children of fallen military members. This specificity creates a natural filter that allows the brand to make decisions about partners more easily.

“It makes sense for us to put a stake in the ground on these two pillars,” says Stephanie Peterson, head of communications for IHOP. “We can choose where we want to make that bigger impact, in a way that feels really authentic to IHOP.”

For operators still determining those “pillars,” Peterson suggests they ask: “‘What is it that I as a founder or a company really believe in? Do we want to get more food to underserved communities, or create a community garden, or help out food banks?’ It’s not about picking the charity—it’s about asking the question of what you want to stand for.”

Empower franchisees

At fast-casual concept McAlister’s Deli, franchisees own most of the 400-plus restaurants—and the brand gives those owners the power to decide charitable efforts. They are the ones fielding requests via physical forms, online forms, calls, emails and even the occasional conversation with a customer. “It’s very much a human effort,” says Justin Krivanek, McAlister’s director of field marketing, adding that the brand does not currently use a digital or tech-based filter.

“We recognize that our franchisees are the ones who truly understand what will affect their own communities,” says Krivanek. “We’ll have conversations sometimes about helping us [at corporate] understand the importance of an effort so we can make sure we support that. But there’s no formal approval process. Every community is unique, so it needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Similarly, IHOP’s 1,700 restaurants are mostly franchisee-owned, and local charitable efforts round out the brand’s select national partnerships.

For national efforts, think local impact

Charitable efforts need not be national versus local—they can be both. For larger operators such as IHOP, “The key for national partnerships is finding groups who can activate at both a [national] and local level,” Peterson says. IHOP’s current national partner is Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, which fills funding gaps for 170 hospitals. The group receives benefits from IHOP corporate efforts that filter through both company and franchised locations, including the popular annual Free Pancake Day.

“They have that breadth and strength in the marketplace, so we can centralize our efforts,” Peterson says. “But they can also activate locally with their 170 hospitals in the network and impact those communities.”

Don’t be afraid to say no

Tough conversations are a part of the charitable-giving reality, because it simply wouldn’t be possible—or prudent—to accept every request.

For McAlister’s, there isn’t a set script for when the chain has to say it can’t participate. “We look at ourselves as a very inclusive brand, welcoming in the community, so we keep that in mind,” Krivanek says. “Political things tend to have tension to them. Overall the approach is to listen and understand, and maybe the answer is no, or maybe it’s that we can potentially help at some point later.”

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