Saying "no" to charity is better than saying nothing
(MoneyWatch) My company, my employees and our families all support a variety of charities that are important to us. But despite our giving nature, we obviously can't help everyone who asks us, and neither can you or your business. However, there's a difference between declining requests and ignoring them, and it's an important distinction.
If you're a small business owner, chances are you get a steady stream of requests for donations of cash, products or services. We get at least one or two such inquiries a week -- it might be for a raffle prize for a little league team, sponsorship money for a fundraising event, or silent auction items for a school or religious program. Most of them are worthy causes, some even tug at our heartstrings.
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Obviously it's great if you are able to help a good cause. If my company can accommodate a small request with something simple and painless like a product for a raffle, we do what we can; but we -- like most small businesses -- still have to say "no" more than we can say "yes."
So how do you deal with constant requests for help without seeming insensitive or uncharitable, especially if you're a visible small business in a small community?
Some business owners would say, "You can't, or shouldn't, deal with them at all. There isn't enough time in the day, and you have to ignore them like any other unwanted solicitation -- that's what the 'delete' button is for."
These owners aren't necessarily uncaring or ungenerous; they may just have thicker skins and highly disciplined time management practices, and it's admittedly hard to argue against that from a cold, hard business perspective. But my column is called "Business with Class," and in my company one of the ways we try to live up to that aspiration is by not habitually ignoring people, to the extent that we reasonably can. We believe it's all part of the "humanity" factor -- the same culture that dictates the way we treat customers, employees and colleagues, suppliers, and others with whom we interact.
Before you say we have way too much time on our hands, I'm not suggesting a long, personalized greeting, explanation or apology to everyone who asks for anything. I'm talking about acknowledging credible, well-presented requests with a reply that can be as simple as a concise form note that you or someone in your office can cut, paste and send. A minute of your time to avoid patently blowing off a (usually) decent person or organization doing what they must to solicit help. I'll even save you the time writing it -- feel free to use mine:
Our company and its employees are proud to support a variety of important causes. But we receive many more inquiries than we can possibly consider, as much as we wish we could. We appreciate your understanding that we're unable to accommodate your request.
Another option is to create a charity information page on your website and reply to requests by referring people to the link. On the page, explain your policies and limitations, and if you want, provide a request form. Stipulate that requests will be reviewed, but for all the reasons stated, replies cannot be guaranteed. It's a very professional, efficient, hands-free way to handle the traffic -- it may not be touchy-feely personal, but it is better than a cold corporate shoulder. Many companies already post their favorite charities on their sites; this page is a good place to do that as well.
If a request for charity or other support is properly directed, professional, polite and from a legitimate source, consider being generous with a minute of your time and spirit, even if that's all you have to offer. The courtesy of any reply -- again, assuming the request isn't pure junk mail -- not only makes you a mensch, but if nothing else it makes your business stand out as a caring and responsive corporate citizen.
The value of that reputation is worth whatever small amount of time and effort you put into it. Call it enlightened self-interest, or call it good karma. I call it decency, and decency is good business.
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