small businesses

By Ryan Ayers

Small businesses are the lifeblood of our communities. They bring people together, allow neighbors to support neighbors, and offer alternatives to the big box stores dominating the market. However, small businesses can’t just expect to open up a storefront and wait for the customers to come in. They need to be a proactive part of their communities.

Staying connected to the communities they serve is important for every small business. Not only does giving back to the community bring businesses and residents together for common goals, it also helps small businesses gain a competitive advantage by promoting trust, recognition, and goodwill. So how can small business owners get involved? It doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming! Here are 5 ways small businesses can give back to their communities, and bring everyone closer together.

1. Sponsor a youth organization and donate your storefront

One of the most common ways small businesses can give back and get some recognition is by sponsoring a youth sports’ team or youth organization by buying equipment and supplies or donating space and materials. This is a great option, because you’ll be investing in the future of your community and getting some advertising out of the partnership. Sponsorship needs vary depending on the team and the area, so be sure you have the budget to fulfill your sponsorship obligations before you move forward.

If you don’t have the money for sponsoring youth events or team, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, sports teams and other youth organizations often have their own fundraising efforts, like selling cookies or candy—but they need the visibility to make sales. Letting kids set up shop in front of your store can benefit these organizations without costing a cent.

2. Start a food or clothing drive

Even in wealthy communities, some people are undoubtedly living in poverty. As of 2014, 21.1% of Americans were living below the poverty line, and often unable to purchase necessities like food and clothing. Starting a food or clothing drive that you can bring over to a local shelter or food bank can make a big difference. Offer an incentive for shoppers to donate—maybe a discount or something free with their purchase—to encourage donations. Some small businesses have made these drives a defining feature of their businesses, like MODE in South Dakota, a local franchise chain that holds denim drives for the needy on a regular basis.

3. Volunteer

If you can’t donate your money, donating your time by volunteering could be a great option. Most business owners have a lot of value to offer with their skill-sets. Employees from a small accounting firm, for instance, could teach basic classes on taxes at the local senior center, or veterinarians could offer free exams for low-income pet owners. Whether one person or several represent the business through volunteering, offering your time and expertise can make a big difference in the community.

4. Support other local businesses

Giving back to your community also means supporting your neighbors and fellow business owners. Get to know the other establishments around you, and make an effort to give them your business. Eat at the local place, rather than the national chain. Source products locally when you can. Speak with your dollars and leave reviews online to encourage visibility for your fellow business owners.

5. Help be part of a solution

Each community has its own individual problems, and small businesses can play an instrumental in solving them. Poverty, homelessness, lack of access to medical care and healthy food, and addiction are major problems in many communities in the United States (every day, 90 people die from opioid overdose). Helping out at the ground level and coming up with creative solutions are essential for improving these problems and creating stronger communities. One example of this is Jimmy Wright, owner of Wright’s Market in Alabama. Wright helped to solve the specific problems his community was facing by giving people free rides in his company van to and from the store so they could purchase healthy food—difficult for people who have no transportation or are no longer able to drive.

An Ongoing Effort

Of course, whatever you can do as a business owner to give back to the community always helps someone. However, it’s important to remember that community involvement is an ongoing effort, not just something to do at the end of the year or every once in a while when you think of it. Staying woven into the fabric of your community takes consistent action, sincerity, and time. Find causes that you feel passionate about and make them part of your business’s identity—you’ll be building a strong foundation for your business—and your community.

Ryan Ayers has consulted a number of Fortune 500 companies within multiple industries including information technology and big data. After earning his MBA in 2010, Ayers also began working with start-up companies and aspiring entrepreneurs, with a keen focus on data collection and analysis. You can find more from Ryan on Twitter at @TheBizTechGuru.