With spring comes the inevitable rush to finish tax returns and a chance to add up just how generous you were in giving back last year. Successful lawyers and law firms are pretty good at being solid citizens in that respect. However, often overlooked are the numerous opportunities to “triple dip”—benefiting from the positive things you are doing for the public good, from the tax benefits, and just as importantly, the powerful impact upon your marketing efforts.
Law firms often become squeamish when I start talking about making sure they are maximizing the marketing benefits from charitable endeavors. I often remind management committees that there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of those ancillary benefits—and I regularly suggest that firms likely should increase those donations because of the strong positive impact on the firms.
If you do not already incorporate charitable giving (and I sometimes include political, religious and educational donations as well) into your firm’s overall marketing plan, you are missing the boat. While some of the concepts I suggest perhaps might not work in a huge law firm setting, in a small to midsize firm, there are benefits to getting a pulse on the individual contributions made by attorneys and staff. A firm’s marketing staff should be aware of, and involved in, the conversation.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BENEFITS?
What now seems a lifetime ago for William Bowser, a partner in the employment law section at Young Conaway in Wilmington, Del., like many others he had to confront cancer hitting home—in this case, his child. Bowser’s enormous time and effort in advancing cancer funding and research has led to unplanned but well-deserved ancillary benefits, as chair of the governor-appointed Delaware Cancer Consortium.
“I initially did this because of what my family went through, and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” said Bowser, who has now chaired the consortium for more than a decade. “The people that I’ve met along the way, the good work we’ve done, have certainly benefited every aspect of my life and practice. But to be honest, all I cared about was my son conquering cancer, and helping others do the same.” The best benefits are those that are happenstance but come about by way of giving back to the community. I often suggest that attorneys get involved in causes for which they have a passion and a motivation.
Many charities provide tremendous image branding opportunities through media acknowledgements of donors. You see them all the time on billboards, on radio and television, and in print. Many charities receive significant free media space and use it to “thank you for your support.” In addition, logos appear on promotional brochures, in mailings and perhaps on T-shirts and other giveaway items.
If your charity offers such opportunities, be sure that they have your logo, in color, and depending on the awareness of your firm name in the market, include a designation that you are attorneys. This image branding exposure is often more powerful and prevalent than taking out an advertisement in the same media outlets—and a whole lot cheaper. Charitable donations and volunteerism will garner much greater media exposure than spending 10 times more on less-effective image ads.
HELP THE CHARITY HELP YOU
Lawyers are often recognized by organizations for their contributions. Law firms regularly promote these accolades by highlighting them on their websites and/or in press releases. However, having a charity issue the press release is far more effective than yet another self-congratulatory law firm news item. Yet many charities simply don’t have the personnel or time to write releases. Offering help to the development person(s) at an organization by writing the release for them is usually met with open arms and gratitude. After all, you are doing the work for them. But you benefit, too. The release is written the way you want it. And the media receive it from them rather than you. It’s a win-win.
Organizations also appreciate when you set up an accompanying event at the firm to recognize people who are doing good. A little in-house reception can be turned into a media/photo opportunity for the charity to highlight, and it also provides nice internal public relations recognition as well.
THE PAPER-CLIP PRINCIPLE
This marketing trick works well and does not cost the law firm a dime. Individual attorneys often donate to the same worthwhile causes but submit their checks—whether $50, $500 or $5,000—separately. Let’s say five partners send in $1,000 apiece. Good work. But let’s say they paper-clip those personal checks together and send them to the organization on behalf of the partnership of the law firm. Now the firm can be recognized as a premier or platinum contributor. Numerous opportunities for firm visibility can arise when the firm is recognized as a major contributor, including greater potential for placement of partners on influential boards and committees. There is nothing like having your law firm appear in the “bigwig” category alongside, say, Johnson & Johnson or Comcast. And a growing number of organizations are promoting the percentage of contributors from firms. There is often law firm coordination for law schools, which love to point out those alumni who have given (and by implication those who haven’t), but other entities look at the participation numbers as well.
Now, many of you might think it inappropriate to question colleagues about where they send their personal charitable contributions. There are firms small and collegial enough, with good, open dialogue at partner meetings, where certain organizations can be safely discussed. I’m talking more along the lines of the American Cancer Society and United Way, or schools and food banks, than Planned Parenthood or the National Rifle Association. However, at certain firms where politics—“real” politics, not firm politics—play huge roles in getting government work, lobbying or related efforts, “paper-clipping” can help a firm get noticed by a politician or a political party.
PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT FOR ASSOCIATES
Law firms buy lots of tables at lots of events. Sometimes they’re driven by board involvement. Or the firm did it for a key client. Yet the loneliest tables at charity functions too often have a law firm name sitting squarely in the middle for all to see. I like to call this reverse branding because it conveys a message of emptiness to those attending. “Oh, we just could not get anyone to go”—or more likely, never tried very hard. A late-afternoon email to “all attorneys” about the black-tie gala in three hours isn’t a plan. Business development and professional development staff need to be in the loop when tables are purchased. A less-than-full suite at an arena is somehow less problematic—but still. Let your professional and development staffs help fill banquet tables. Use such functions as a training ground for developing networking skills. My easy, low-stress networking assignment for associates requires them to bring me back the business cards of three to five people they met at the event. I’m not looking for “leads” as much as making sure that they interact with people outside the firm. Charitable involvement of all kinds is outstanding at providing subliminal business development, professional development and leadership training.
Ideally, you use the table to represent the firm and entertain clients—again, getting a double-dip, by donating money for charity and providing no-additional-cost dining and entertainment. Of course, there are charity events and then there are charity events. Those marquee nights, with big-name entertainment and free-flowing food and beverages, present meaningful opportunities for networking with clients and prospective clients in a nonsale setting.
TEAM BUILDING (AND EXERCISE!)
When sponsoring a 10-kilometer race or a charity bike ride, be sure to use any free registrations that come with the package. If your attorneys don’t want to get up and run 5K or 10K in the morning, support staff and administrators might find it fun. Get everyone together. Give them matching T-shirts. Show the firm off to the community. As a marketer, I review all of the elements involved in the charitable donation to make sure we get whatever (good) things are coming to us, from logos on the shirts to complimentary registrants, from speaking opportunities at an accompanying kickoff breakfast to placing a promotional item or firm brochure in the gift bags. The organization wants you to be involved, so take what they give you. Your participation helps them get other companies and people interested and active—and they see your marketing and media savvy as a positive for their own fundraising goals.
If you want to do good and build teamwork at the same time, also consider offering to pay the registration fee for a number of charity events each year. Let’s say a race costs $50 per entrant. Write one big check and let everyone participate. In most cases, the cost will be minimal, employees see it as a perk, and you get a write-off. If you want to meet your people halfway, there is nothing wrong with offering to match the donation—either paying half the minimum fee or doubling up the donation.
TIME IS MONEY
Of course, many organizations are just as eager for your time as your monetary assistance. Powerful marketing impacts can arise from serving on certain boards, such as sitting next to the CEOs of your community’s biggest players. These might involve providing pro bono legal work, helping to fundraise or aiding the organization’s day-to-day operations. I always say that I can give time, money or a combination of both—because in our world, there is a finite amount of time, which we divide into billable and nonbillable hours. Allowing your law firm members to apply nonbillable time to the yearly billable quotas doesn’t hurt.
Many states have programs offering additional tax incentives for certain contributions. For example, the Pennsylvania Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program allows a law firm to make substantial donations to educational institutions while costing the partnership pennies on the dollar. The end result is that a school might receive $10,000 from your firm, with tax credits offsetting the donation. The marketing benefits are often substantial—with thanks offered in newsletters, press releases, on the Web and in photo opportunities. (There’s nothing like handing over a supersized check!) Once again, everybody wins. The government gets school funding that had been cut, the educational institution gets a much-needed contribution, and the firm is recognized as a responsible, civic-minded institution at practically no cost to you.
GIVE BACK ANYWAY
In this day and age, giving back is so important, regardless of the benefits. Medical causes, houses of worship, homeless shelters and schools desperately need contributions. It’s part of our professional responsibility as members of the civic and corporate communities in which we live, work and play. “Paying it forward” is about doing good with no expectation of a return on investment, but the reality is that the marketing benefits are plentiful. And if you are doing good things, you deserve the ancillary branding that accompanies them.