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Social Responsibility: You Don't Need to Be Big to Make a Difference

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My marketing company, VerticalResponse, was probably in business about five years before we put a stake in the ground and said, "We're going to help our community!"

Why did it take us so long? Because I thought you had to be Salesforce.com or Google to really make a difference. But that simply isn't the case. What I didn't realize at the time is that any business, no matter how small you are, can do something in an impactful way.

Offering your products or services at a discount or for free to community organizations is a great and easy way to get started, because it doesn't involve anyone else but your company. We began our endeavor by offering 15 percent off all of our services -- email marketing, online surveys and postcards -- to any qualifying non-profit. Non-profits do amazing things for the community on shoestring budgets, so this was our way of making it a little easier for them.

As the company grew, we wanted our contribution to also grow. So in 2007, we made a bold move: We began offering 10,000 free email credits (equivalent to $120) per month to all non-profits, as well as 15 percent off everything else. One of the first conversations I had with my newly appointed chief financial officer, Dave, was about this new and improved non-profit email marketing program. I was excited by the fact that this would afford so many non-profits, especially the smaller ones, the ability to really grow their donation and volunteer base without spending a dime.

Today, more than 22,000 non-profits like JustGive, Bike New York and the Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Assn. (which organizes all the neighborhood markets here in San Francisco) use our tools to get the word out about their initiatives and raise funds, and it feels great to know we're helping them succeed.

As VerticalResponse continued to grow, we again felt the need to up the ante. The next step we took was partnering with Salesforce.com to sponsor their volunteer events. We would get 15 to 20 people on weekends to do something that benefited the community. One weekend we painted an elementary school (in the rain, I'll add). On another, we painted and landscaped a homeless shelter. We even helped build a local YMCA playground. It was an incredible way for my team to not only work together at doing something completely different, but it also gave them a chance to meet new people.

Because we loved these events so much, we eventually started our own programs, like donating computers to a local elementary school and reading to the children. We often volunteer at the San Francisco Food Bank as well as Project Homeless Connect, a quarterly event that helps the homeless in our city.

Beyond doing good in the community, employees get to work together in a totally new and different environment where the playing field is leveled. They can be picking weeds and shoveling dirt alongside their boss's boss; there is no more hierarchy of roles. You can learn so many new things about your fellow co-workers when you spend a day sharing an experience that's not related to "work."

Another side benefit of volunteering? Employees really love working for a company that is cause-friendly and they'll tell their friends. The best employee you can get is someone referred by one of your rock stars! You also get new customers that want to do business with a company that's giving back, which, in the end, is what you want to do.

So if you want to give back to your community, don't wait until you hit X number of employees or X dollars in sales or revenue. Start now. Even if it's something small, someone will benefit and so will you - with happy employees, great word-of-mouth and the knowledge that you're doing something to help others.

What are you doing to give back to your community?

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Janine Popick is the CEO and founder of VerticalResponse, which provides a full suite of self-service online marketing solutions for small businesses and non-profits including email marketing, event marketing, online surveys, social media and direct mail. She's also the CEB (Chief Executive Blogger) of the VerticalResponse Marketing Blog for Small Businesses.