Erasing the Line Between Marketing and Philanthropy

Last Updated Apr 20, 2011 2:13 PM EDT

By Jennifer Mayer, CEO, Charlotte Street Computers, Asheville, North Carolina
When I married my husband, Greg, I knew next to nothing about the computer repair business he owned. He's a great technician and loves what he does, but he's always happier out in the field than back at the shop running things. As a result, the business was struggling.

When I started working in the shop after our wedding in 2006, we couldn't even afford to pay me minimum wage. I asked our bookkeeper, "How do we make more money so I can get a paycheck?" "Marketing," was her reply. "Ask everyone who comes through the door how they heard about us, and then try new ways to reach more people."

I went on to try every marketing outlet in town, but in the end it was an idea of my own that proved most effective -- and I didn't even conceive it as a marketing tactic.

My background
I developed a profound sense of appreciation for local social services growing up on welfare. I was functionally illiterate until I was 18, and might not have had clothes on my back or a roof over my head if not for the kindness of others -- particularly a woman named Judy Elliston. She inspired me to get my GED and let me live with her and her family while I got my college degree.

Giving back was always a part of my long-term plan. When I met Greg, I figured we'd grow Charlotte Street Computers together. In 20 years we'd be happy and rich. Then I'd devote myself to philanthropy and show Judy that I'd learned from her example.

Unfortunately, that wasn't in the cards. In 2008 Judy was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease -- it was terminal.

By then, Charlotte Street Computers was on better footing. I'd boosted our business through brochures and local advertising, which had allowed us to open a second location in South Asheville the previous year. The incremental victories were great, but with Judy's health deteriorating rapidly, I felt like it wasn't enough. I wanted her to see her legacy taking shape -- I needed to do more.

A new project
At the time we recycled a lot of old computers, printers, and other electronics for our customers. Most of the stuff was in great shape -- it seemed a shame to break it down. Having worked my way through school, I knew that there were a lot of people out there like me who couldn't afford to pay for classes, never mind a computer. Refurbishing seemed like a better option than recycling; that way we could donate the machines directly to people and organizations in need.

I launched e-cycleme, a 2000-square-foot computer refurbishing center in downtown Asheville in August of 2008. Judy and I would curl up in her bed and read letters from people who needed computers. It was an incredible feeling knowing that I could actually help them.

I created e-cycleme because I wanted to help the community -- I didn't realize it would help our business, too. But when new customers came to Charlotte Street Computers, we often discovered they'd heard about us because of a news article about our philanthropy program.

Giving is a two-way street
Charlotte Street Computer's reputation for generosity grew quickly within the community. Non-profits and charities began seeking us out for donations and sponsorships.

All I had was a marketing budget -- if I just gave them money, my business wouldn't grow. Instead, I wanted to build strategic partnerships with non-profits that could help raise awareness of our brand in exchange for financial support.

In some cases, I work with organizations to develop custom programs. We give the Asheville Community Theatre $10,000 every year. In exchange, they put our name on a banner at the performances and give us 350 tickets to each play. We then distribute the tickets to various non-profits.

Marketing-wise, we're getting multiple levels of exposure. The theater loves the support, its patrons see our banner, and then the non-profits spread the word about the tickets throughout their support bases. Plus, I get to keep some of the tickets to hand out to kids in one of the local housing projects. It's a win-win on all fronts.

We're busier than ever
Funneling our marketing budget into supporting the community has paid off big time. When I married Greg, Charlotte Street Computers was bringing in $190,000 a year. We're a $3.5 million dollar company now.

Of course, it also helps that we have award-winning technicians -- we're booked out three days on emergency calls alone. We still pursue traditional marketing initiatives. But if I can make something work that will benefit the community, I will.

Judy died in 2009, just as our philanthropic efforts were getting off the ground. Since then, we've donated 700 computers and support roughly 25 charities each year. I like to think that she would be proud of what we've accomplished.

Jennifer Mayer enjoys engaging her community as a mentor, mentee and part-time water aerobics instructor.
--As told to Joseph Conway

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