Opinion: How companies can give back to their communities

Palo Alto Software employees participating in the United Way Day of Caring (2017)

A mantra worth repeating: Philanthropy adds value to communities and companies.

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Successful businesses are under no technical obligation to tend to the growth of their surrounding economy or culture, but I’ve seen over the years that philanthropic leadership provides mutual benefit for everyone involved.

Some companies lead by using their influence as a vocal platform for causes; others look for unique ways to get involved on a personal, community level. Incorporating a blend of approaches can serve both the company and the community in big ways. 

Leaders within a company should approach their charitable focus like they would any business decision — strategically and proactively. I encourage leaders to take a close look at charitable initiatives that relate directly to their core values. Our team creates software that helps small businesses grow, so we pay close attention to new ways that we can serve emerging business owners, first-time entrepreneurs, and existing small companies. 

For example, this past holiday season, we launched #LivePlanGives, a simple initiative that allows us to donate $10 to Kiva microloans for every new LivePlan package.

If your efforts to shape your surrounding community tie back to your company’s values or offerings in a specific way, you’ll grow more fully into a mission-driven business on both an internal and external level

Once business leaders have a grasp of their key values and competencies, it’s important to ask, “Where is the biggest need in my local community?” and “Where do our gifts overlap with that need?”  

Related coverage:  Lean in?  Not Sabrina Parsons

We’re based in Eugene, so we naturally strive to identify new opportunities to support the local region.

Earlier this year, The Tech Association of Oregon announced Oregon’s new Apprenti program, which provides opportunities for meaningful tech apprenticeships in the area to close the opportunity and jobs gap.

For us, it made sense to commit as a local partner: we want to prepare new tech talent and retain existing talent in the region and support economic growth for the entire community directly through our own job openings. Initiatives like Apprenti directly build the workforce here in Oregon so that talent doesn’t continue to leave for larger tech hubs. 

On our team, we don’t want to just give the impression that we care; we want to actually roll up our sleeves and be active participants in our community. Giving time instead of money can be daunting for busy leaders and companies, but the effort to connect in a more meaningful way is critical to finding the mutual benefit in giving.

There are lots of ways that leaders can give that go well beyond a financial commitment. At Palo Alto, we’ve donated time, training and products to Small Business Development Centers, which is an effort inspired by our belief that small businesses are key drivers of the U.S. economy. 

Truly creating a mission-driven business means that charitable efforts must be felt company-wide. Our team, alongside many other companies I know, give our employees work hours to dedicate to regular volunteering.

By offering one half day each month to give back to the community, we’ve had over 10,000 hours of volunteering pile up over the last five years. 

Related coverage:  The new philanthropy

One of the best ways to ensure a great culture of giving is to provide your team with the freedom to choose how they want to give as individuals. It is inspiring to see how your employees choose to use their giving time  — we’ve seen hours go to schools, churches, community gardens, local conservancies, and we have a number of employees who donate guidance to nonprofits who are creating their own business plans. 

Beyond individual volunteering, it’s important to create a few opportunities to give that bring the entire team together around a focused effort. I’ve seen this done well in many ways; most commonly, companies offer an annual give-back day where the entire team works with a nonprofit of choice.

The benefits of a concerted, company-wide effort allow for a big charitable impact in a short period of time, and also allows for unique team building by pulling employees out of their daily routine. 

There are countless needs in the communities surrounding us  and countless ways to give. By spending the time up front to identify the overlap between these needs and company values, businesses can open themselves up to a far more dynamic way of giving that drives more impact for the company and the community.  

Sabrina Parsons is CEO of Palo Alto Software.

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