Genuine community service vs. blowing your horn (or wasteful contributions)

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nicks pizza chicago

Jon Goldman tells the story of Nick’s Pizza and Pub near Chicago — a modern-day "Its a Wonderful Life" story, showing the value of genuine community participation and involvement. (You can click on the image to read the entire story.)

Readers here know that I advocate one of the most effective marketing methodologies within the AEC community is to put your heart and soul (and perhaps some cash) into worthy community service initiatives.  I’ve also suggested that you can frame these initiatives within the interests of your market (that is, causes which match your market’s demographics) or which simply reflect your values and concerns even if they aren’t market-related.  (This type of distant service can bring unexpected rewards, if only by broadening your horizons.)

However, within these observations I notice two areas which cause me some concern.  First, the “community service” initiative that appears to be more self-serving than genuine, and secondly, the wasteful allocation of resources for so-called community service when you are just lining the pockets of a commercial promoter.

The first situation is a matter of gradation and expectation.  In off-the-record conversations, I’ve heard observations from community service organizations who receive “gifts in kind” offers from businesses, who then expect intense grattitude, recognition and publicity support.  Whether the “gift in kind” is really needed or wanted doesn’t matter, whether it is just surplus merchandise, or a crass attempt at self promotion, the community service organization cannot tell — but the gift is certainly not appreciated as being meaningful or genuine.

Related to the first example are the stories when I see widely distributed press releases touting what is in fact a minor contribution.  I have mixed feelings about these news releases.  On one level, as a publisher, I appreciate knowing about community contributions and am happy to publish them.  On the other, I am a bit cynical, knowing that the news release service charges a fee for the news dissemination, and I wonder if the fee is close to the actual contribution.

In the second (converse) example, I am well aware of telemarketers who pose as charity representatives, collecting “contributions” for purportedly worthy causes, or advertising in programs and charity magazines.  Sadly, I discover on reviewing these crappy, self-serving products, that the largest percentage of advertisers arise from the AEC community.  In other words, businesspeople are making “contributions” to line the pockets of commercial businesses posing as community service organizations — an utter waste of money for legitimate service.

What really works?

I would advocate a respectful modesty in community service initiatives, and a respectful caution and patience when deciding on who and what causes to support.  This does not mean you need to live in the shadows.  Certainly your employees can and should be involved in the process and it is right to expect some recognition when you make a gift or contribution.  Really big publicity should be reserved for really big contributions — I’ve cited the “Ride the Rideau” initiative, for example, where business leaders helped to raise $1.8 million for cancer research at the local hospital, obviously relevant within our market service area.

If you are giving a few hundred dollars to local school, a brief note to the school bulletin and your internal newsletter may be enough, however.  And it never hurts to ask the charities what contributions they really require, rather than just give what you want from your surplus inventory.

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