One of the biggest challenges for many nonprofits is exposure and generating mass awareness of their cause. But the Internet has begun to change the way in which charitable organizations promote their efforts and can serve as an important vehicle for spreading their message worldwide. By allowing them an opportunity to interact directly with consumers in a meaningful way, nonprofits can cultivate cause champions and reach untapped areas of the market to advance their efforts. Beaconfire, a web development and interactive marketing firm located in Arlington, VA, is focused on just that, working in tandem with nonprofits to make a difference in the world and create a thriving network of cyber-fueled consciousness.
Specializing solely in the non-profit sector, Beaconfire understands the subtleties and nuances of the space, including the financial and resource limitations that charitable organizations face. As such, they offer their services at discounted rates, and share their knowledge and learnings with non-profit staff to help expand their arsenal of tools and become self-sufficient in key areas. Their business model is simply to make a difference, and with that in focus, every activity is centered around change, not profit, and how their services can help spark that change. For Michael Cervino, Vice President and Co-Founder, making a modest profit that produces significant impact is more important than a big bottom line with little results. Through an unwavering dedication to that goal, Beaconfire aims to shine a light on nonprofits to guide growth, awareness and action. And that’s a karmic check worth cashing.
You can meet the folks behind Beaconfire at SXSW Interactive from March 13-17 in ‘The Beacon Lounge,’ a lounge with a conscience, bringing together conscious entrepreneurs and companies to collaborate and network toward a common goal. Room 19A, 4th Floor, Austin Convention Center, Austin, TX.
1. How do you define for-profit philanthropy?
Beaconfire is a for-profit company that engineers Web sites and creates online campaigns and marketing programs for non-profit organizations. Every day we work with non-profit organizations and as such, we recognize that our business is inextricably linked to the sector’s well-being. This has driven us to think of corporate philanthropy in terms of an overall strategy for the company – that our program should focus on giving back time, talent and treasure to the non-profit community that sustains our livelihood.
Working with foundation clients and other organizations, we are steeped in the dialogue about “strategic philanthropy,” measuring the impact of grant activity, and the quandary over how corporations can best contribute with the highest impact. These philosophical discussions come home to us in the most basic question: how does a small company like ours give back in a meaningful way? Should we target our relatively small resources in one area, driven by what the local community needs? Should we give internationally where what we have might make more impact? How strategic should we or can we be in our giving? How do we decide what areas we should focus on and what we do?
In the end, we designed a program for our company with a focus on engaging our employees in helping to shape how our company contributes back to the non-profit sector as a community.
2. Please describe your philanthropic business plan and your current charitable activities.
Consistent with our philosophy, we have four key areas we focus on making a difference for the non-profit sector:
Our business model reflects our commitment to the sector. We set out to create a company that could deliver the highest quality consulting to our nonprofit clients at a cost affordable to them and that is sustainable for us as a business. We keep our rates affordable, we do not markup expenses, we pass product discounts we get as a partner through to the client, and we don’t sell our clients what they don’t need. We could make more money if we didn’t do these things, but that wouldn’t help the sector nor our business in the long run.
We contribute our knowledge. We believe it is crucial that we share with the sector what we are learning about the Web and technologies that can help organizations grow. Our blog, speaking at conferences, hosting Executive Dialogues, writing articles and contributing to books are all efforts to share this knowledge. If certain contributions have some business benefit for us in terms of sales or networking, that is gravy. The main thrust is sharing what we know, stimulating others to share what they know, and making the sector stronger through the dialogue.
We contribute our time. Several times a year, we take time off to volunteer as a company for local nonprofits. Last year, we participated in International Coastal Cleanup with the Ocean Conservancy and will do that again this year. This year, we helped Greater DC Cares on MLK day to repair local schools. Beyond these group activities, we respect that employees have volunteer commitments at schools and other community groups. We work with them on their schedules to ensure they can meet these commitments and maintain the work/life balance we think is vital to our long-term sustainability as a company.
We contribute our profits. We set aside a percentage of our profits for charitable contributions. We think we have a unique approach to distributing those profits. Each profit distribution cycle, employees “pitch” their co-workers on a non-profit organization they think deserves our support. The staff votes on the organizations put forward by their peers. The charitable contributions amount is split among the top 3 vote getters. Each person who participates has the chance to ask questions about the organizations, voice their vote, and learn in the process.
3. How do you communicate the impact of these efforts to your customers?
We don’t make a big deal about our efforts with our clients. We are philanthropic because it is part of our ethic, our values and the world needs us to contribute what we can. Whether we are recognized for it or not is inconsequential.
4. Why do you think it’s important for companies to adopt philanthropy as part of their revenue model?
We believe it is crucial that companies build philanthropy into their culture and their revenue model for two basic reasons:
(1) It is in society’s best interest to do so: Government and the private sector can’t solve all the problems all the time. A strong public sector makes for a strong society. The more companies can do to share what they have to strengthen the whole, the better the long-term outlook for all.
(2) It is in our self-interest to do so: We seek to hire and retain people who are passionate about the missions of non-profit organizations and how to use technology to help them grow and prosper. They are more engaged and prouder of the company they work for because of our commitment to giving back. No bonus or salary increase can create the sense of community and shared purpose that our philanthropy program does.
5. What would you say is the most critical element in successfully implementing philanthropic endeavors?
Make sure the program is authentically staff-driven. To achieve the sense of common purpose and community, you have to design your program from a staff-centric point of view. Giving away profits to a nonprofit the owners care about doesn’t mean a hill of beans to the staff. Employees bringing these organizations forward, asking questions and engaging in the decision process means everything. This same dynamic plays out with volunteering and sharing knowledge. The philanthropy program isn’t about a corporate agenda; it is all about giving our people the opportunity to share, letting them inform how we share, and empowering us all to have a positive impact in a variety of ways.
Name: Michael Cervino
Title: Vice President & Co-Founder
Company: Beaconfire Consulting