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The Marcus Perspective

GIVING ‘TIL IT HURTS
Developing a Firm Giving Policy

By Bruce W. Marcus

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There is no firm in business today that isn’t inundated regularly by requests for contributions, whether they are for charitable, community or political causes. For the community-minded firm, the requests can be overwhelming, as is the feeling that you do indeed want to help the organization requesting your help. But how can you serve your community — and frequently, your firm — without hurting your own firm’s budget and community relations? You can say yes too often and dissipate your budget and your firm’s time and energy, but how do you say no without seeming to be coldhearted and indifferent to community or charitable needs?

The array of charitable and political requests is vast, and puts many a firm in the position of having to make painful decisions about each request. A firm giving policy can help. It serves to depersonalize the process, without diminishing its value, and is understood by most professional fund raisers. A firm policy defines, as well, the role and limits of individual activities performed under the firm’s aegis. At the same time, it should be remembered that firm giving is, in many respects, a marketing decision.

A well-defined — and written — firm policy clearly delineates the firm’s contribution practices, including the budget. By having it set forth in writing, it is then the policy, and not the management of the firm, that’s accepting or declining requests for contributions. It enables you to say: “We’d love to contribute, but it’s beyond our budget for contributions,” or: “We’d love to help, but our firm giving policy has limited the causes to which we’re able to contribute. Try us again next year.”

Beyond civic and humanitarian reasons for giving, there are sound reasons for participating in contributing to good causes. For example:

  • Networking. Meeting and developing relationships with people who are either potential clients or in a position to recommend you to potential clients. Participating in activities that give the firm and its people access to industry and political leaders is invaluable as part of any practice-development program. Within the confines of limited budgets, however, priorities and assessments must be made regularly, based on the potential return on investment. Because individual participation in an organization can be consuming beyond the point of value to the firm, these activities should be examined and reevaluated regularly.
  • Public relations. Activities that enhance your prestige and reputation as good citizens, even when there is no immediately perceptible direct benefit from your participation, is a significant advantage. This can be either firm or individual participation. There are civic and industry (including legal) activities in which your participation spreads the firm name, and enhances your reputation as important to both the business and area communities. However, as valuable as these activities are, there is a ready ability to overestimate that value, and to devote too much time and effort to them. On the other hand, there are activities, such as an arts council, in which your prestige is enhanced by your participation, while at the same time you do good works for their own sake.
  • Client relations. There are activities supported by clients who ask you to participate, or for whom participation enhances your relations with them. These activities are fraught with opportunity. When an important client asks you to take a table at his or her favorite charity or industry affair, the return on investment is fairly obvious.
  • Personal satisfaction. These are activities in which individuals participate out of personal choice, but in which there are no immediate and obvious benefits to the firm. Except for those activities that the firm may feel are its traditional preferences, the personal preferences of each individual in the firm are exactly that — personal preferences. The firm’s only concern in this area should be that personal activities should be recognized as such, and not confused with activities that redound directly to the firm’s benefit. At the same time, a firm policy may encourage, support, and define individual activities in behalf of the firm.

It’s probably the better part of wisdom, before establishing any policies, to ask the partners and staff of the firm to give some input on their own practices, organizations, and so forth. This should give you a greater sense of what you’re doing now, and what you should do differently.

Although it’s difficult to set hard and fast rules — other than to establish budgets — by categorizing these activities, it becomes easier to assess the potential return on the investment of firm time, money and reputation.

Within each category, there are categories of participation. These include:

  • Money. While there are occasions when a budget must be bent for the right reasons, budgets should nevertheless be established. At the beginning of each fiscal year, attempts should be made to determine the events and activities that should be anticipated for the coming year. Matching funds policies should also be established.
  • Organizations. Other than those that have strong personal moral or private purpose, the requesting organizations and causes should be chosen for the exposure they offer you to meet or work with potential clients, or those who influence client choices of professional firms or services.
  • Name. Sometimes all that is asked of you is to lend your name to an event. This has to be assessed on an item-by-item basis.
  • Time. The amount of time spent in public service, community and industry activities can be as demanding and expensive as money. Here, too, the concept of return on investment applies. And here, too, care should be taken that unexamined and entrenched activities don’t go beyond the potential benefits.

The choice of activities to support, as well as the budget allotted to contribution, are a choice to be made by each firm and its circumstances. What has worked for many firms, however, is to adopt one cause as primary, and then allocating smaller amounts to a second tier of support. This allows you to capitalize on your own community support, and focus your attention on your participation more effectively.

By developing policies based on these guidelines, and assuring that every person in your firm understands them, requests for contributions are made in an orderly fashion, without undue agonizing about each request.

Bill Ruder, of Ruder & Finn, used to encourage clients to participate in community and charitable causes. He called it doing well by doing good. And of course, he was right.


Bruce W. Marcus is a Connecticut-based consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms, the editor of THE MARCUS LETTER ON PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING, (www.marcusletter.com) and the co-author of CLIENT AT THE CORE (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). His e-mail address is

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