John Egan

Around the holidays, reminders of philanthropy are about as common as candy canes and mall Santas. Salvation Army bell ringers are practically everywhere. A flurry of TV ads seeks to tap into your generosity. The holiday season certainly warms our charitable hearts.

Yet charity isn’t just a seasonal undertaking. For entrepreneurs, philanthropy should be a year-round policy. In a 2010 survey by Ernst & Young and the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, one-fourth of the entrepreneurs questioned said they included corporate philanthropy in their original business plans.

Here are seven ways you can make charitable giving more than merely a seasonal endeavor.

1. Align your business with at least one charitable cause. Identify a charity that resonates with you and your employees. In a 2010 survey by Ernst & Young and the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, three of every 10 entrepreneurs said they wanted to engage with causes that matched their companies’ core missions.

2. Give money. The Ernst & Young/Fidelity survey showed that seven of every 10 entrepreneurs donate money, on their own and through their businesses, to charitable causes. At work, one way to accomplish this is to have employees run in-house fundraising campaigns for designated charities. Six of every 10 entrepreneurs questioned in the survey think that giving back makes their companies more successful in the long run.

3. Donate your company’s products. Research from Indiana University shows that giving away your company’s products, rather than selling them off at a deep discount or throwing them away, helps corporate bottom lines, reduces landfill waste and provides relief for people in need. Of course, don’t overlook the substantial tax benefits of this strategy.

4. Donate your own time. If your budget or your corporate budget can’t support cash contributions, donate your time. Deliver meals to homebound people. Serve on the board of a nonprofit that fights cancer. Lead a fundraising campaign at a food bank. This gives you a chance to improve your community and raises your profile as a business leader. In the Ernst & Young/Fidelity survey, six of every 10 entrepreneurs said they sit on a nonprofit board and five of every 10 have chaired a nonprofit board.

5. Organize companywide volunteer opportunities. For instance, you can set aside one workday every six months for employees to clean up local parks. This approach positions your business as a caring workplace, encourages team-building and gives your employees a well-deserved break from the office. According to the most recent OPEN from American Express Small Business Monitor, a semiannual survey, 26 percent of small business owners will ask their staffs to take part in a volunteer activity as a group during the 2012 holiday season, up from 16 percent last year.

6. Foster volunteer activities for individual employees. In the Ernst & Young/Fidelity survey, nearly three-fourths of entrepreneurs said their companies’ policies actively encourage employees to volunteer their time and expertise to charitable causes. Employees will appreciate your willingness to let them give back to the community.

7. Form your own charity. Aside from the tax advantages, setting up your own nonprofit allows you to ensure your dollars are spent how and where you want them to be. Plus, this puts a long-lasting imprint on the community for you and your business.

“Just as they put their hearts and souls into their businesses, entrepreneurs pour themselves into the causes they care about,” Sarah Libbey, president of the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, said when the Ernst & Young/Fidelity survey results were released in 2010. “They are passionate about investing not just money, but time and energy, in the causes most important to them and their companies.”

This article is part of the Drive Your Business Forward series. Check out for more tips and advice on how to succeed as a small business. This series is supported by Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.