Every business owner wants to give back, but in the hustle and bustle of running a company, it’s easy to let philanthropy fall by the wayside. Then, come tax time, you realize you hardly gave back at all, or that what you gave wasn’t necessarily focused on your core values. Making a plan for charitable donations will ensure that giving happens—and it can benefit your business in more ways than just the good feeling you’ll get from doing your part.
Here’s how to make giving back a meaningful part of your design business.
First, define your why
Charitable giving is always more meaningful if your business clearly defines its values and if your donations align with your work. For example, Portland, Oregon–based firm Jessica Helgerson Interior Design donates to nonprofits that fight homelessness. “We have the good luck to be working on very high-end projects, and I am hyper aware of the discrepancy between that and what’s happening everywhere in the country,” says Helgerson. “I’m inside my office doing the most perfect marble detail for somebody’s second kitchen, and there are people on the sidewalk living in tents.” If your firm has a focus on sustainable design, you might consider a climate focus for your giving; a woman-owned business might want to partner with charities that support women and girls; or a business located on the coast might fund ocean conservation. Holly Mumford, the founder of Hereabout Home, started her New York– and Vermont-based company with a commitment of giving 3 percent of profits to organizations devoted to shelter or environment; ultimately, her firm found its go-to beneficiary in The Brigid Alliance, which provides transportation and housing to people seeking an abortion.
Research local charities
It’s easy to donate to a big national charity because they have a recognized name, but your dollars will likely make a bigger impact at a small organization. Phil Warish, the antiques dealer behind Blue Farm Antiques in Franklin, New York, started out giving away 10 percent of his retail sales upon reopening his shop after Covid closures in 2020. Since then, he’s narrowed his focus to organizations within his community—the logic being that $1,000 is just a drop in a bucket for a national charity, but it could be a program-altering amount for a local food pantry. “It doesn’t take that much to make a difference,” says Warish. Not only will your impact be more acute; donating locally will strengthen your businesses ties to your community.
Quantify your charitable ambition
What is realistic for your business to contribute may be very different from another business—and what you can comfortably donate may fluctuate from one year to the next. However, if you don’t specify your commitment, it’s easy to undergive or forget to give at all. To cultivate both flexibility and consistency in donations, many businesses opt for a percentage of profits. Mumford suggests setting aside the money or making the donation at the time you pay your quarterly taxes so you don’t forget, and to avoid ending up with an uncomfortably large donation at the close of the calendar year.
Give with no strings attached
It may be tempting to give to a specific project or initiative within an organization so you can point to exactly what your firm helped fund, but Helgerson suggests otherwise. “Why not give money that is unrestricted funds, not for any particular pet project?” she asks. “That is what they always really need.” Nonprofit beneficiaries’ needs change from year to year, which can make restricted gifts especially challenging.
Donating money, services or goods to a charity is impactful, but it may be even more meaningful to your team to volunteer together. “Volunteering is a great way to get out of the day-to-day and connect with a purpose that aligns with your company culture, vision and values,” says Charleston, South Carolina–based textile designer Rebecca Atwood, whose team participated in a Habitat for Humanity build this year. Because her staff is small, she invited local designers who work with her business to join. “It was a great chance to connect with them too,” she says.
Encourage employee giving
A corporate gift-matching program may sound like something that’s reserved for big corporations, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re eager to strengthen your firm’s culture of giving, it wouldn’t be difficult to create a small-scale matching program: Define what donations you will match (for example, “donations of up to $500 to any conservation-focused nonprofit”), ask your employees to give you documentation for their contribution and then make a matching donation.
Get your clients involved
Helgerson’s firm has taken a unique approach to its charitable efforts, adding a 1 percent surcharge to all of its invoices that goes to the Oregon Community Foundation. Helgerson was so enthusiastic about the initial success of the approach with her clients that she has tried to encourage other design businesses in Portland to join her through what she calls The One Percent Project. However, she laments that she’s had little success rallying others to the cause: “I see how much we’ve been able to do, and I imagine how much more we’d be able to do if there were more participants.” Warish also believes in his customers’ ability to foot the 10 percent donation to charity (an amount he says is the usual discount customers ask for, which he stopped offering clients in favor of giving to community organizations). “These are luxury purchases,” he says. “If you can afford a $2,000 pair of lamps, then you can probably afford the $200 donation to charity that is part of the price.”
Communicate your efforts
Of course, you should give for giving’s sake, but your firm—and potentially your philanthropic partners—will also benefit from communicating your efforts to clients and employees. Warish shares his philanthropy with customers and on social media to raise awareness for the causes his shop supports. In one instance, he even heard back from a charity that a customer had also become a significant donor to the organization. Spreading the word on social media might help raise money from people beyond your client list.
Get your tax deduction
Donating to charitable causes can have financial benefits for your business through tax deductions, but you need to make sure your tax advisor knows what you are giving and that your cause is, in fact, tax deductible (GoFundMe campaigns and political donations, for example, are not). Direct donations of cash are most straightforward; if you are donating services or goods, you’ll need to keep detailed records of donations and get a third-party appraisal for the value of in-kind donations.
Laura Fenton is a writer with a special interest in the intersection between homes and sustainability, and is the author of the Living Small newsletter and two interior design books, The Little Book of Living Small and The Bunk Bed Book. She has written about home and design for nearly 20 years, and her work has appeared in many outlets, including Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful, Real Simple, and The Washington Post, as well as online publications and regional design magazines.