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In giving back, businesses should ask: What Would Bernie Do?

By Eric Tanenblatt

When Rick Jackson, who parlayed a fractious adolescence in foster care to become one of Georgia’s most successful businessmen and most dedicated philanthropists, approached me last year to join in launching a first-of-its-kind corporate charity initiative to help local businesses find creative ways to give back, I enthusiastically agreed.

goBeyondProfit, as Rick pitched it, would “make giving back the norm for Georgia companies” by celebrating the best-practices of corporate generosity in all its varying forms.

That message–this notion that all businesses, no matter their size, could find creative ways to align their operation with unique ways that served their community–is what attracted me and others, like Home Depot Co-founder Bernie Marcus, to goBeyond.

Bernie’s philanthropic endeavors are felt daily by thousands of visitors to Atlanta’s world-famous aquarium, but his experience with corporate generosity goes far back, as he recently wrote in an article for Fox Business. He writes:

“Often, corporate generosity is regarded as a mechanism for quick publicity: buzz for bonuses, celebrity for charity. But to be transactional in charity is to miss the opportunity it presents for the bottom line and beyond, as I learned thirty years ago when a poor, elderly woman walked into her local Home Depot. Her roof was in desperate need of repair, but she had only five dollars to offer.

That singular episode, and everything we learned about corporate generosity as a consequence, changed our business. I’d even venture to say it was fundamental to its success.”

The question of giving back, and all the attendant balance sheet considerations of actually how to do it, are tough ones, especially for new or small businesses. Despite the complications, Bernie said, strategic, deliberate, sustained generosity eventually led to real growth for the business and its employees:

“This woman had no money to give and no favors to return, and we weren’t exactly flush with cash at the time, but we resolved as a company that honoring our social contract with the communities in which we operated—that to be in them required truly being a part of them—was important.

Despite our own resource limitations, we pledged to donate the supplies to match the store’s associates pledge to donate their labor. So we built her a new roof, and then we built her a deck. We installed new lighting and patched damaged walls. Together we renovated her entire home.

At the time, we didn’t appreciate the full scope of what was happening and all the possibility it presented for our company and its culture. But when that store became one of the top-performing in the country—and its employees wanted to come to work, and to stay, and to collaborate, and to serve with passion—we began to.

We learned that giving back in a deliberate, thoughtful way helped grow our business by making it a place that attracted and retained both talent and customers.”

After applying lessons learned from the roof episode, encouraging local stores to find unique vehicles for community involvement, Bernie admitted he was surprised even himself at the breadth and creativity of stores’ commitment to serving their communities:

“The Home Depot had two stores in the city at the time of the [Oklahoma City] explosion. I was immediately concerned that our employees or their families had been affected, but couldn’t reach the manager for either store despite repeated attempts.

Unbeknownst to anyone in our corporate leadership, these two managers had loaded down company trucks with shovels, hammers, pick axes, and tarps–everything needed for a rescue operation–from their stores before racing to the scene of the devastation to aid in the emergency recovery of injured persons.

When finally we spoke, they told me they understood their actions meant they would be terminated. None of the inventory they raided could be accounted for, after all.

Quite the opposite, I told them: they were our greatest heroes. And it’s because of those two heroes that The Home Depot has been on the scene with recovery supplies in countless natural disasters and major emergency situations since.”

Thirty years later, what would Bernie tell us about his lifetime of giving back? Do it: “Giving back can hurt, as it did when we fronted the cost of a roof 30 years ago as a humble start-up. But going beyond profit was the best business decision we ever made.”

Eric Tanenblatt

Eric Tanenblatt, former chief of staff to then-Governor Sonny Perdue (R-GA), now US Secretary of Agriculture under President Donald Trump, and longtime strategist who served in three Republican presidential administrations, has been named chair of Dentons’ Global Public Policy and Regulation practice. He remains head of the Firm’s US Public Policy practice.


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