Many of Calgary’s corporate giants are known for their deep pockets when it comes to philanthropy.

However, efforts are now under way to get smaller companies more involved in the communities where they do business.

It’s not the case that only large corporations are involved in philanthropy, says Mike Mears, president and CEO of the Calgary Foundation. “There are a number of small and medium-sized businesses that are quite generous.”

The Calgary Foundation, founded in 1955, helps donors, corporate and otherwise, to establish grants and funds for Calgary community organizations. Mears notes there are numerous reasons for Calgary businesses of all sizes to open their wallets.

Mike Sturk, Business Edge
The Family Office’s Hal and Constance Button are very active in corporate philanthropy efforts.

Entrepreneurs choose Calgary because it is a stable and safe place to do business, Mears says. Giving back to the community, be it through a gift of money or as a volunteer, is a way to ensure the city remains a secure place.

“If they want to preserve this, like any investment they want to invest in their community,” he says.

The Family Office, a small Calgary-based business that offers financial planning and wealth management services, tuned into that idea eight years ago when owners Hal and Constance Button decided they wanted to donate their own time and money to charitable causes.

Now the company works with both the Calgary Foundation and Woods Homes, offering its expertise in financial planning and management.

Corporate philanthropy can bring many benefits to a small business, Hal Button notes.

Not only does it get satisfaction from its actions, but it also projects a positive image to the community, which in turn can lead to increased business.

“If a small company is able to say ‘We support the Children’s Wish Foundation’ by giving part of its profits back to this charity, it’s those types of companies that consumers are going to want to deal with,” Button says.

According to figures from a recent Statistics Canada survey of the non-profit sector, Canadian charitable organizations report that a mere 2.5 per cent of their contributions come from corporations, while most arrives in the form of individual donations, membership fees and government funding.

But with government funding drying up, non-profit organizations are increasingly looking to the private sector for dollars, says Petro-Canada chairman Brian MacNeill, who spoke at a recent Calgary Foundation event at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.

“You may be thinking that your company isn’t yet the size of a Petro-Canada and this philanthropy stuff may be a little out of reach at the moment,” MacNeill told the audience. “But I can say with certainty that a little bit of assistance can make a huge difference in a life.”

Some Calgary charities are witnessing an increased level of participation from the corporate sector, including local small businesses.

The Calgary Inter-Faith Food Bank says more corporations are encouraging staff to volunteer time, including during work hours. In other cases, an individual employee will bring the company onboard.

“Many times it’s the enthusiasm of the employees, because they’re the ones who really drive it,” says Food Bank spokeswoman Angela Knight.

Anita Gately, co-ordinator of the weekly Feed the Hungry Sunday dinner put on by Catholic Charities within the Diocese of Calgary, says she has also noticed increased interest in the program from the business community.

“We’re getting a lot of inquiries from businesses who want to help out, either by sending people down or with donations,” Gately says. “And what I’m noting is that a lot are looking for something regular to get into. They want to get to know the agencies.”

Northland Pontiac Buick GMC, a car dealership in northwest Calgary, is one such business.

“We decide early which charities we will donate to, and that helps us keep a handle on things because we get several requests each month,” says dealership co-owner Jay McKeen.

Making it work isn’t as complicated and costly as most imagine, he adds. Just as with any part of running a business, foresight and planning are needed.

Innovation can be nice, too. For the third time in three years, the dealership will provide thousands of pounds of meat next month to Calgary charities that feed the needy. But instead of simply shopping at the nearest supermarket, the dealership buys 20 cows directly from ranchers and then has them slaughtered and packaged.

“This idea has two thrusts: First, we’re helping Alberta’s troubled beef industry, and second, we’re helping to feed Calgary’s less fortunate,” McKeen says.

This year, the dealership is also inviting the non-profits into the dealership to meet and talk with staff before delivering the payloads to their respective freezers.

Wayne Chiu, president of Trico Homes, says picking the right charitable cause is important. Chiu, recipient of this year’s Generosity of Spirit Small Business Philanthropist Award given by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, says his company has embraced children’s charities, such as the Kids Cancer Care Foundation.

The Hong Kong-born Chiu also looks for causes that celebrate his own cultural roots, such as Calgary’s annual Dragon Boat Festival.

“This is something very important to me, building cultural bridges between East and West, and I would encourage other businesses to look into themselves and find where their passions lay,” Chiu says.

In addition to benefits such as receiving tax breaks or a better public image, MacNeill points out other tangible advantages to companies involved with philanthropic endeavours.

Besides inspiring pride among staff and higher morale, a company known for community involvement becomes a more appealing place for prospective employees, he says. “Increasingly, companies are finding that a strong reputation in the community is an asset when it comes time to hire the best graduates and retain them,” MacNeill says.

On this note, the Petro-Canada chairman also stresses the importance of communicating these philanthropic stories to the community in a way that best captures the effort. He says merely releasing a terse statement with a dollar amount won’t generate a buzz.

“When you tell your story, tell an exciting story . . . by putting the cause and its people first, and you’ve automatically got a story the media can’t resist,” he says.

Nonetheless, corporate giving may not be for everyone in every situation.

Button, donning his financial-planner cap, stresses that small businesses need to have their own fiscal houses in order before striking out into the world of philanthropy.

“In a small business run by mom and dad, their first priority is going to be their retirement and then the welfare of their kids,” Button says. “After that, they can be as philanthropic as they want.”

If a small business does decide to become a donor, it must understand that it is taking on a commitment that will require a sacrifice of time and dollars, Button adds.

“It’s not always easy, it can be tough because there’s a cost to it, be it a cost of time or a financial cost,” he says. “But at the end of the day it’s worth it.”

(John Ludwick can be reached at jludwick@businessedge.ca)