business tips

How your business can do good while still doing good business.

A photo in which one person hands an apple to another person at a fruit stand.

It can be tough as a small business owner who loves the community to walk that line between being helpful and being a doormat. You’re sometimes told you’ve got a calling, not just a job, and so you should be thrilled to give your time and money away … no matter how many people have already asked for it this week. While this kind of social and internal pressure to do good is stressful, it is (thank goodness!) possible to stay both supportive and solvent. Here are some ideas to get you thinking about how.

Be choosy

It’s okay to believe in a lot of different things. You can love Girl Scouts and foster families and palliative care and community gardens. When it comes to the organizations you’re going to support through your business, though, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with requests for donations and volunteers. Unless you learn to get picky, you’re liable to either

A.) burn through your energy, or
B.) burn through your money.

Neither of these is a good look for a for-profit business. So how do you choose? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Is this group or project coherent with my vision for this business? If you run a PT clinic, sponsoring a local race might make sense. After all, your goal is to help people become fully active again, and this is just another way of doing that. If you’re an arborist, though … maybe not so much. Instead, you might think about supporting the junior youth group that is creating a pocket park in a sad corner of their neighborhood, which is more aligned with your goal creating healthier greenspaces in your metro area.
  • Is this where my money, materials, or effort can do the most good? At the tiny neighborhood literacy program that provides tutoring to children and adults on a shoestring budget, $100 can mean half a shelf of new-to-them books, or keeping the lights on for another month. At an international organization like the Red Cross, that $100 isn’t nearly so impactful. Now, if you can donate blood, the literacy program can’t do a thing with it. So get your body down to the nearest Red Cross blood drive, where your blood can actually make a difference.
  • Will this make my business a better place to work? If you have employees, they might come to you with a request for a donation for a cause they believe in. Even if it’s a bit off-brand, it’s worth considering whether this helps you create the kind of workplace where employees are supported in both their professional and personal endeavors. The fact that your sandwich shop has nothing to do with pet adoptions might mean less over the long run than the fact that your employees now feel heard and appreciated to the tune of a $20 donation.

Think outside the piggy bank

While monetary donations are often the most useful gift, they’re not the only way your business can help. There are often other resources that you as a small business owner may have access to that others do not, resources you might be taking for granted.

  • Space. Do you have an office that goes unused at times? Could a group hold meetings there occasionally?
  • Technology. That fancy graphic design software isn’t going to use itself. Or the printer, for that matter.
  • Wholesale supplies. If you go through nitrile gloves like there’s no tomorrow, it’s cheaper for you to set aside a dozen boxes for the community clean-up than it is to provide the funds for them to buy them at retail prices.
  • Audience. If you have a newsletter, podcast, social media presence, or even just a bulletin board, you have an extremely valuable resource: interested eyes. Using it to spread the news about the school supply drive takes very little effort and usually no cost at all.
  • Knowledge. Business owners develop a lot of knowledge through their work. This can include things like project management, marketing, or the name of the editor at the regional paper who has a passion for featuring small local organizations. If you’ve got a bit of time and a willing listener, a little knowledge can go a long way.


Being a positive force in your community doesn’t just mean working with nonprofit organizations. It also means doing business in such a way that builds the community up, rather than tearing it down. Make referrals to other businesses. Praise freely. Make your space a source of beauty. Pay attention to the newspaper, the school board, the chamber of commerce. Shop locally. Advertise truthfully. Vote.

Ultimately, a strong business, community, and personal life reinforce one another. Sometimes that means saying “I’m sorry, I already have my donations budgeted for this year, but thank you for all the good work you do!” Even when that’s hard. (It’s usually hard.)

This vision that you have of a stronger community? It matters.

So nurture that vision. But never forget to nurture the work that will get you there.