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Spending other people’s money can make you quite generous. 

Frivolous, even. And unless a law firm has a detailed policy for how its donations are to be evaluated and approved, oversight is exceedingly difficult. This means that the partners can easily say “yes” to almost anyone or anything.  Every favored client or hot prospect’s random pet project. Print ads in their kids’ school and religious institution programs. It’s reactive, not strategic or calculated to accomplish any particular goal. All that hard-earned money just gradually dissipates

It’s hard to say “no” to a good cause.

The partners buy meaningless rubber-chicken tables, golf holes, and one-off sponsorship ads whenever asked because it’s easy to say “yes” to a good cause (or a bad cause if requested by a client or prospect). And there are an infinite number of legitimately good causes. The money is probably wasted, but they get to feel good about themselves for saying “yes,” and if by some miracle some business flows from it, they get the billing credit. The model’s busted.

I get this “charitable contributions” question a lot from law and accounting firm clients.  What I suggest is that they start winnowing the legitimate commitments from requests from those where people simply want to donate to their favorite causes using someone else’s [the firm’s] money. That’s too easy. Yes, I know that sometimes big clients squeeze you to support their favorite causes. Some of that is inevitable but, candidly, that’s client-relationship management, not charity. And don’t buy into a prospect’s implication that they’ll consider hiring you very soon if you donate to their cause; you don’t need to buy your friends.

So how should law firms decide how to invest their precious charitable donations?

Rule 1: The lawyers should have skin in the game. 

That is, the firm will only commit to spend 50% of the requested payment, i.e. we’ll match a lawyer’s personal out-of-pocket contribution. If a lawyer is not committed enough to spend his/her own money, don’t spend firm resources. I’ve seen where this immediately cut the number of causes supported by 50%, and the wasted dollars by 75%.

Rule 2: They must hold a leadership position. 

Giving away money is just too easy, let’s get more people actively volunteering.

Rule 3: Support fewer causes, bigger. 

Don’t just be one more tiny name listed in the middle of page 17 of a sponsorship program.  I have worked with firms that donate over $100,000 per year, but do so on literally hundreds of charities ― to no meaningful effect. Instead of dribbling out their scant financial resources in nickels and dimes, drastically reduce the number of charities and select a small handful where they can really make a difference. That is, rather than giving $500 each to 200 charities (not that uncommon, really), I’d rather they donate $100,000 to one truly worthy group, or $50,000 to two.

Rule 4: Support smaller organizations. Get the banner on the building.

This way, you can do some real good while also supporting your marketing.  Get your name prominently displayed in association with the charity. It’s not unethical to seek a return on these dollars. The biggest companies unabashedly measure the ROI on their donations.

Reconsider your contributions to large, well-funded organizations like the Red Cross or the United Way. I’m not suggesting that they’re not wonderful organizations that do great work, but your donation will be a small drop in a massive bucket. Less well-known organizations tend to need the money more, and you can see directly where your money is going and the tangible results they achieve.

Rule 5: Choose organizations that support your brand.

Consider for example how some DUI defense lawyers support Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).  A while ago, Fishman Marketing rebranded Goldberg Simpson, one of Louisville’s most-dynamic full-service law firms.  The tagline we’d designed for these aggressive, entrepreneurial lawyers was “A Law Firm that Really Moves. sm”  We wanted to find local organizations or events whose missions supported our brand message, and enlisted the enthusiastic participation of firm personnel to help identify relevant causes. We asked them to find some valuable charities that also in some way “really moved.”

Instead of sprinkling their charitable dollars across a vast array of charities, we eventually settled on just two where they could make an impact: (1) the local triathlon and (2) the Moscow Ballet, which was bringing the Great Russian Nutcracker to town. We could be a principal sponsor of both, generating valuable free advertising and city-wide visibility and goodwill. Thousands of Louisville triathletes ran through the streets wearing Goldberg Simpson t-shirts. And we got sizable free publicity alongside the Nutcracker, including free print ads, radio spots, and hundreds of free tickets to the ballet.

We donated most of the Nutcracker tickets to the local children’s hospital, enabling sick kids and their grateful families to see the show. We also garnered free publicity for that, and had enough tickets left over to send the firm and its clients to the ballet, hosting a pre-show party.

We designed a ballet-themed print ad and logo for the effort.

Without spending a single dollar more, we saw a dramatic public relations boost. Plus, firm morale soared, because their people could see that the firm had been integral to the success of events that helped their community.

An additional benefit of this strategy is that it helps your lawyers graciously decline future requests.  No one likes to look cheap or uncharitable, but visibly supporting something in this way enables them to say, “Well, I’d truly like to help but, as you know, our firm spends our charitable dollars supporting X Charity.” It sounds entirely reasonable and gets the lawyers gently off the hook.

Call me any time if you’d like to discuss your firm’s particular brand or charitable strategy.


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