Marketing Your Good Works

Learn how to promote your brand’s community service efforts without coming across as crass.

It’s hardly unusual to hear about real estate brokers who are also active volunteers in their community. Both roles encompass a common mission: serving the needs of people to build a stronger society. But is it wise to make charitable activities a central part of your company strategy?

When a new agent joins Jim Greene’s brokerage in Olympia, Wash., he makes it clear that he expects the agent to get involved with a nonprofit or join a civic group. Community service has been in his business plan since the broker-owner opened his office 11 years ago.

Brokers like Greene are proud of their efforts, but they walk a fine line when it comes to how they share the news of their charitable successes. They know that publicly patting themselves on the back can look self-serving and could even turn off potential clients. So here’s the conundrum: How do you gain visibility for your contributions to the community without appearing boastful?

Greene, who has 40 agents and five staff members, takes steps to ensure that his company’s philanthropic efforts don’t come across as a ploy for business. “I’d never brag about what we do because it’s not about that. It’s not about, ‘Hey, look at us; we’re the greatest.’ It’s more that we want people to know that we care about the community,” says Greene.

He has partnered with the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound to establish the Greene Giving Fund so that agents can donate a portion of their commissions or make a monthly donation, which is matched by his brokerage. More than 90 percent of his agents participate. A group of six agents and staff members manages the fund, and at the end of the year they select a range of local nonprofits to support. Greene says they target three main causes: veterans, housing issues, and children in need. In 2015, they raised $17,330, which was distributed to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Thurston County, the USO, Habitat for Humanity, and Homeless Backpacks, a local nonprofit providing food for teenagers.

Developing and maintaining a positive public reputation comes down to consistency. At ERA King Real Estate Co. Inc. of Anniston, Ala., broker-owner Everett King has fostered a culture of community service established by his father, Jack King. King took over the business in 1990 after his father’s death.

“My father said, ‘Son, if you’re not going to contribute positively to your community, then you have not earned the right to have an opinion or to complain.’ That’s resonated for me for 38 years,” King says. “We’ve always given back.”

A few years ago, King’s executive assistant, Ashley Mitchell, organized the company’s charitable efforts into a program called “12 Months of Giving.” Each of the five ERA King offices is responsible for supporting a charity or event monthly in its area. It’s required that the cause have a local connection, and all agents are encouraged to participate.

“Service is truly a part of our day-to-day life,” King says. In 2015 alone, the company donated nearly $50,000 to 48 causes and organizations through its 12 Months of Giving initiative. Its biggest effort was hosting a golf tournament that raised $17,000 for United Cerebral Palsy. The 115 agents and 24 staffers have also supported local school events and sports teams and volunteered at area food pantries. They collectively spent more than 700 hours supporting the community last year, and were recognized this spring with ERA’s 2015 Circle of Light for Community Leadership Award.

Brokers who stay visible with the causes they support find that it enhances their credibility with both agents and clients. Two years ago, Doug Van Nortwick, who with his brother John co-owns ERA Buyers and Sellers Real Estate, in El Paso, Texas, and Albuquerque, N.M., offered to shave his head for donations to support the Wounded Warrior Project. He raised $17,000 and his buzz cut was broadcast live on YouTube. At ERA King, Everett King and his management team train agents to mention the 12 Months of Giving initiative in their marketing presentations, spending two or three minutes explaining the nature of their charitable work to prospective clients.

Enlisting the public—whether clients or the wider community—to get involved in their causes helps brokers and their sales associates build trusting relationships within the community, too. The agents at ERA King ask clients to get involved and take part in events. “Not only do we work in the community, but we live here and we play here, and want to contribute here,” King says. “We want to work together to accomplish something.” Similarly, Greene says he and his agents aren’t shy about inviting clients to fundraisers.

The approaches brokers take to communicate their good deeds vary. Both social media and postal mail have their place. Greene and his team prefer social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. “The more you’re entrenched in the community, the more people will know who you are,” he says.

The Van Nortwicks help their agents communicate the team’s good works by providing event photos to share on social media and postage to mail postcards, strongly encouraging them to spread the word within their spheres. Their aim isn’t to be boastful but rather to raise awareness and attract like-minded -customers. The brothers reach an even wider audience through social media. Each fall, photos of Doug and about a dozen male ERA Buyers and Sellers agents flood their Facebook feeds when they participate in the annual YWCA Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event in El Paso. The men wear women’s heels to raise funds for services that the YWCA provides to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Last year they raised nearly $7,000.

Of course, building business connections and supporting the community are intertwined. But when the efforts to serve are steeped in a genuine desire to help people in need, the result is a win-win for all involved.

Getting Involved the Right Way

  • Make it formal. Make your philanthropy part of your business plan and have a well-organized system for getting agents and customers engaged in your efforts.
  • Be consistent. As the broker, you set the tone. If you walk the walk when it comes to volunteerism, your agents will too. And the longer your company is involved with a specific cause, the more legitimate it will be in the eyes of customers and the general public.
  • Market with tact. Celebrate the charities you back and explain why you support them, but don’t put the emphasis on yourself or your company; focus on the positive impact for your community.