12/07/2012 05:34 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

The Problem With Businesses Giving Back - and How You Can Fix It

Giving back is at the core of any great business. In small towns all across the country, one sure sign that the holidays have arrived is when the Toys for Tots collection signs are sprinkled beside businesses along Main Street like the first fallen snow. It's not just small businesses, it's big ones too. You won't find a Fortune 500 firm that doesn't give back to the community or to charitable organizations, they all do. Giving back is the minimum standard when it comes to business, period. What could be wrong with giving back?

I own a handful of real estate offices in New England, sixteen to be exact. Since the day we opened our doors twelve years ago, we have always been sure to abide by the cardinal rule of business, "Give back to the community." Last year was no exception, and as usual we adopted hundreds of families across the state for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We bought holiday dinners and tons of toys and gifts for the families in need. One week before Christmas last year one of my salespeople sent me a short email that really caught my attention. Her email simply posed the question, "Do you think any of our own employees need help for the holidays too?"

In the ten years of owning and operating small businesses of all kinds, it had always been a given that some people in the community need help during the holidays, but it had never once occurred to me that our own team members could use a hand as well. My own team members were not needy! Or were they? Sure enough, I sent an email out to our entire company, more than three hundred sales associates and employees. The email simply read, "The holidays are almost here. If there are any team members who are worried about how they are going to provide for their families this holiday season, please let me know. We are here to help." Six of my team members reached out, and we provided the financial resources to help them for the season.

What does needy look like?

What you might not know about "needy" is that it looks a lot like you. Sometimes "needy" is the person sitting right next you. It's a family member, a friend or an employee. Yes, it is quite possible that the people who need a hand financially this holiday season are the people that are working for you. They have a job, but maybe their spouse doesn't. Maybe they are working for less than what they are worth because jobs are scarce. Perhaps they are caring for not only their four kids, but also other family members who have been affected by a difficult economy. People who are in need generally don't announce it. Instead, they silently just get by.

Needy has no particular face and everyone at some point needs. For some the need is financial and for others the need is just company, or even simply an ear to talk to. Don't ever judge someone because they need, because there will be a time when you need too. I make this point because when you bravely reach out to your own people and extend a hand, you will be surprised by those that reach back for the help. It's easy to pre-judge and think that the other side could not possibly be in need. You are not privy to the whole picture for that person, nor should you be. The courage it takes to ask your team if anyone needs help for the holidays pales in comparison to the valor it takes to be the one to ask for help. Therefore, ask no questions, just give.

Now, when I make arrangements for giving back for the holidays, I always make sure to reach out to my own people too. As a business owner, I will no longer make the mistake of assuming that the people around me don't need a hand. In business, giving back is merely a minimum standard. Exceeding the standard requires only that you, as a business owner, entrepreneur, and leader remember that charity must start at home.