Giving Back with Coffee

In the Café

giving back

(Photo: Nathan Dumlao.)

Coffee weaves a thread of connection among cultures and people around the world, so it’s not surprising that community service and philanthropic efforts are a priority shared by many coffee businesses. From donating leftover food to holding fund-raisers for nonprofit organizations, there are endless opportunities to use your businesses as a conduit to support positive change. But what does it look like to give back? Is there a right way to pay it forward?

For many people, the biggest stumbling block on the path of giving back is juggling a philanthropic initiative alongside the many pressing commitments of running a store on tight margins.

The first step is to find something that’s easily manageable for you and your business. Kathy Santoro of Good Day Café in North Andover, Massachusetts, introduced suspended coffee at her store earlier this year. The concept empowers customers to cover the cost of a coffee, sandwich, or pastry, which can then be redeemed by a customer who needs the financial assistance.

But Santoro found the coffees and food items weren’t being claimed at the rate they were being purchased. “We are not in a community where people come in and ask for suspended coffee on a regular basis,” Santoro says. In response, Good Day Café is adjusting their program to better serve their community. “We were going to send coffee to [a nonprofit] but since we have [money], we are looking at translating it into food,” Santoro says. “We are going to be delivering forty pounds of chicken to a homeless shelter.”

Food Donations

When budgets are a concern, donating leftover food is a cost-sensible way to support community members in need. Surplus pastries and sandwiches can be donated through companies like Food Cowboy, which have been created to mitigate business owners’ concerns around food donation. “When donors are enrolled in Food Cowboy, they agree to donate in accordance with the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act [which protects them from liability],” says Food Cowboy cofounder Barbara Cohen.

An app connects food companies to local nonprofits that meet Food Cowboy’s charity standards for food safety, responsiveness, timeliness, and receipting. “The donor lets the charity know exactly what and how much is available, if it is fresh, frozen, or shelf-stable, and when it can be retrieved,” Cohen explains. “The charity arranges the pick up or rejects it. Too many rejections of offered donations get flagged.”

A Giving State of Mind

A budgeted approach to giving has proven successful for companies looking to donate revenue. Blue State Coffee began trading in Providence, Rhode Island, in July 2007 with the goal of helping people in need.

“Our company was started so that we’d give to local nonprofits,” says Carolyn Greenspan, CEO of Blue State Coffee. The company donates 2 percent of sales, regardless of whether it makes any profit. Greenspan says donation is treated the same as any other line item on the budget: “We buy milk, we buy coffee, we pay our employees, we pay our rent—and we give away money.”

As a result, Blue State Coffee—which now has eight stores across Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut—has contributed almost $700,000 to more than 250 local nonprofits in the ten years since its founding.

A flat percentage model might not be realistic for all businesses; those retailing roasted coffee can also take a per-bag approach.

After returning from overseas mission work, Jeff and Emily Brooks thought that coffee would be the perfect conduit to raise funds for charitable projects, and engage customers in the experience. The Brookses launched Giv Coffee in the fall of 2011. Located in Canton, Connecticut, the philanthropic roasting company and café donates one dollar for every twelve-ounce retail bag of coffee it sells online, through its own café, or through wholesale partners. Funds go to the Hartford City Mission in Connecticut and to three overseas nonprofit organizations.

Philanthropy is a core mission for both Greenspan and the Brookses and they shaped their business models around it. However, you don’t have to give up a huge chunk of your potential income or sign on to a large-scale program to make a difference.

“I talk to a lot of coffee shop owners and what I usually just say is: ‘Do something,’” Greenspan says. “Can you donate coffee to one event? That’s great. But you can’t do nothing.”

Invite Participation

Conveying your mission to customers is key to generating enthusiasm for your initiatives. Blue State Coffee has put a simple system in place to ensure everyone can support causes that are valuable to them. Customers are encouraged to nominate nonprofits the company can donate to—four are chosen every six months, based on customer suggestions.

“They come here, have their awesome cup of coffee, then take a little voting token that we have at the register and they get to vote for whichever of the four nonprofits is going to get the 2 percent of their sale,” Greenspan says. “Who doesn’t like the idea that you are doing exactly what you were going to do anyway but somebody is going to benefit from that?”

Giving-back initiatives have also proven popular with staff. At Giv Coffee, Jeff Brooks says they see lower turnover as a result of involving staff in their efforts. “Our staff is really committed to [our] goal and really understands this is something beyond just an awesome cup of coffee.”

The financial side of any philanthropic project needs to add up, too, but both Greenspan and Brooks have found that committing a significant portion of their proceeds to nonprofits has sharpened their accounting skills. Brooks says he always has to be sure the numbers are in line. “There’s not a lot of room for error,” he says. “You have to be on the edge, constantly pushing quality.”

Ultimately, the rewards make the effort more than worthwhile. Greenspan, the Brookses, and Santoro have all been deeply touched by the people they have been able to support. Says Good Day’s Santoro, “I manage a staff of fifteen and pay bills and all that, but this is the best part of my job. I’m in business to try to do better and this has got to be what it’s all about.”

Carla Passino is a freelance writer based in the United Kingdom.