The Business of Caring
Doing Well by Doing Good
By Kellie Schroeder

Reprinted with permission from BJ's Journal

From the get-go, Mary Lou knew that she wanted her fashion and image consulting firm to give back to the community. "I included community relations in my business plan when I formed the company," says Mary Lou. "Even though I couldn't afford to write a check when I first started, it was always part of my vision to be a civic-minded company."

Right after Mary Lou sold her wedding gown to finance her now highly successful business, she began looking for opportunities to get involved. "I looked for charities that were near to my heart and that were important to my customer base - charities with a woman focus," remembers Mary Lou. "And if it had a fashion tie-in, even better!"

Almost immediately after opening shop, she volunteered to serve on a celebrity fashion-show committee to benefit a women's charity. While she couldn't give much in terms of financial support, she volunteered countless hours and donated gift certificates to her business to be auctioned off to raise money.

The "return on investment" was unbelievable. Not only did she help establish her company as a concerned corporate citizen, but she also found some of her most loyal customers through the event. "The women who purchased my gift certificates became some of my best customers, and they in turn recommended me to their friends. That's how I ended up growing the company," explains Mary Lou. "I found that when you truly give from your heart, amazing things can happen!"

According to a survey conducted by the Business Council on National Issues (BCNI), amazing things do happen when a business makes a meaningful community investment. "Most business leaders understand that community involvement has important links to the success of their enterprises," the BCNI report states. "Helping the community was seen as helping the company meet various human resource management goals, from recruiting and retaining skilled people to building employee morale, loyalty, motivation, and productivity."

The study found that not only can community involvement instill employee pride in the company and foster team spirit, but it can also enhance the company's image, improve customer relations, and help build goodwill toward the company.

"Civic marketing has really worked for my company. It allows my staff to give; it allows my clients to give; and it allows me to give," explains Mary Lou. Now that her company has achieved national attention from everyone from news anchorwomen to ABC's "Good Morning America," she can afford to write checks to support her favorite causes, but she continues to become personally involved in the charities that she supports.

"We wrap ourselves around the charities and have found that our clients really appreciate that," she explains. Proceeds from all of her company's Dressing Well seminars are donated to charity. A recent event raised over $5,000 for Shannon's House, a "home-away-from-home" for cancer patients undergoing treatment.

Another event benefited a program which transitions women from the Massachusetts Correctional Institution back to work by knitting clothing for the needy. Mary Lou helped organize a yarn drive to help the women make afghans and clothing for survivors of Hurricane Mitch.

"The response to these programs was tremendous," says Mary Lou. "The charities were a really good fit for us, and our clients loved it because it gave them a vehicle to make a difference."

Another surprise benefit was a front-page story in her hometown paper detailing her company's efforts on behalf of charities. "It was one of the best pieces ever written about me," she recalls. "I didn't know it, but Shannon's House had a PR firm which pitched the story and got coverage for the event and my company."

She adds, "You don't do it for those reasons alone, naturally. You give for the sake of giving. But it's a competitive business arena; and when you can be different and do something that allows you to reach a bigger audience and connect with the community, it's just great!"