For small businesses, supporting local charities is the right thing to do, and it is smart business. In addition to creating goodwill and nurturing your reputation in the community, a marketing benefit—such as increased brand awareness—can often result from your support.

For years, our personal training business donated randomly, giving to any cause a client asked us to support. However, since our donations were spread out among many charities, we weren’t significantly affecting any individual organization. As a result, we didn’t enjoy the maximum marketing benefit.

That has certainly changed.

Give Back

Two years ago, we began a philanthropic campaign called “Give Back.” Essentially, Give Back is a fundraising effort in which 100% of the proceeds from certain services are given to two local charities.

Our original intent was simply to leverage our giving by spending $1 to raise $2, for example. Instead of donating directly to the charities as we did in the past, with Give Back we provide a service that generates significantly more money for them. Participants pay for services by making checks out directly to the organization of their choice, which allows them to receive the tax deduction and personal recognition for supporting the charity. In our first year we raised $7,000. Last year we raised $17,500 and intend to double that amount in 2011.

We fully expected to enjoy personal satisfaction from supporting a worthwhile cause. What we didn’t expect was how much it would benefit our bottom line. This has been the best marketing initiative we have ever discovered, and we did so by accident.

The marketing benefits we have experienced include

  • significant acknowledgment in our local media;
  • winning our Chamber of Commerce’s “Corporate Philanthropy Award.”
  • acknowledgment on our charities’ websites, newsletters and (in one case) annual report;
  • enhanced reputation—our clients, staff and community refer to what we are doing as “amazing.”
  • easy entrée to new civic groups and businesses (approaching such groups and initially offering to provide a service for the cost of a donation elicits a very favorable reaction and often overcomes initial price objections);
  • and

  • promotion of our services by our charity’s nearly 50 board members and hundreds more staff and volunteers.

The intangible benefits, such as brand awareness and client retention, are hard to quantify. But there is no question that this exposure has led to significant new traffic and interest in our services. We have had many Give Back participants send us referrals and upgrade to our more comprehensive, for-profit offerings after seeing the quality of our service. Last year was our highest-grossing year ever.

How to Create Your Own Program

Step 1: Identify Objectives

  • Leverage your giving and make a difference in your community. For every dollar you spend on a program like this, shoot to raise a minimum of $2 for the charities. The majority of the cost will be either your or your staff’s time.
  • Realize maximum exposure for your business. Your objective is not to see how many people you can get started on your for-profit services. That will take care of itself down the road. As you develop your program, seek only to create maximum awareness.

Step 2: Choose Your Charities
You can choose as many or as few as you like, but I recommend no more than two. This allows you to concentrate your donations and significantly affect your chosen organizations. In turn, the charities will be encouraged to give you more support and recognition.

Choose local charities that are important to you and well-recognized in your community. It is best to select an organization that serves a specific niche, as opposed to those that have a broad mandate, such as United Way or the Red Cross. Although worthy organizations, they tend to acknowledge businesses making much-larger donations.

We support the Centre County Youth Service Bureau (CCYSB) and Centre Volunteers in Medicine (CVIM). CCYSB provides numerous programs for underprivileged kids and CVIM provides medical services for those who cannot afford them. We believe very strongly in these organizations, as do our clients.

You may already have a clear idea of whom you would like to support. If not, do a little research on charities in your area. Tell some of your clients about your plans and ask if they have any ideas about whom you should support. They will all have suggestions and be impressed with your vision. Then schedule a meeting with the charities to learn more about them.

Once you have found a cause you feel passionate about, share your plans. Let the organizations know you are counting on recognition for your efforts. Suggest that they promote your program on their website and include it in their newsletter. They will most often be happy to do so. Think about what this means to them: new donors with minimal effort.

Step 3: Choose Your Services

Now you’ll want to decide what to offer in exchange for donations from participants. It’s best to choose services you can provide for a 100% donation; partial donations can make your effort look like a marketing gimmick. Remember, your strategy is not to profit now; it is to create goodwill and awareness in your community. This will increase traffic, demonstrate your value as a fitness professional and ultimately generate interest in your for-profit services.

We’ve found that group activities work best, as more participants mean greater exposure. Here are examples of services you can provide:

  1. Group Training: Offer an individual class or series of classes to the public for the cost of a donation. We have one local business that makes an annual donation so three of their key employees can participate in our classes. You can also specialize if you like, perhaps offering a class to a group like the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. When providing for a group like this, don’t ask for a donation. You are giving to a worthwhile cause and will ultimately receive acknowledgment for your service.
  2. Lecture Series: Create a presentation or series of presentations that show your value as fitness professionals. By charging a donation, you will often overcome price objections while showing that your time and expertise are valuable. Examples of presentations we have given include “Nutrition and the Psychological Roadblocks to Eating Well” and “Your Personal Mission Statement: A Roadmap to Success.”

Figure on the high side as you consider how much of a donation to ask for. After all, this is a donation to charity. We charge a $100-per-month donation for our group-training program and $350 per group presentation for our lecture series. We ask for a $25-per-person donation for presentations at our facility.

Programs like these will accomplish both program objectives: leveraging your charitable giving and creating exposure for your business by getting in front of new people.

Involve Current Clientele
For current clientele, develop programs that create energy and reinforce a corporate culture of caring and giving. These programs may not create direct exposure to potential new clients, but the goodwill is worth the effort. Here are two programs we created for current clientele:

  • The Nutrition Habit Challenge. Our clients committed to changing a nutrition habit of their choice for 6 weeks. If clients were successful, their names were included in a drawing for two Elton John tickets and gift certificates to a client’s local restaurant. Unsuccessful clients made a $20 contribution to one of our charities. The challenge was a great success. It created energy in our facility and helped motivate clients to work on their nutrition through the dog days of winter. It cost about $400, and we raised $800 for the charities.
  • Holiday Employee Bonus Initiative. In lieu of the standard holiday gifts our clients often give their trainers, we asked that they make a donation in their trainer’s name. We then gave the money to the trainers ourselves in the form of a year-end bonus. The program was costly but amazingly successful: it created enormous goodwill among our team members, clients and charities. We also felt fortunate to be able to treat our team members at the end of the year.

Charities and a Better Bottom Line

In the personal training business, marketing is about creating awareness and being given an opportunity to show value. A charitable-giving program accomplishes both. It creates awareness in many ways, but most significantly by getting the charities to help promote your business. By charging the cost of a small donation for some services, you have an opportunity to show your value as a fitness professional to a much larger audience. This leads to referrals, inquiries about your for-profit services and increased business.

This strategy supports the community, delivers a significant return on investment and is consistent with our industry’s mission to make a difference in other people’s lives. Approach it with a desire to make a difference and you will be amazed at the result.