5 Tips for Handling Donation Requests

Wineries are constantly approached for donations.  In fact, smaller producers -- for example, many of those here in the Pacific Northwest-- could probably donate their entire production.  From health organizations such as American Heart Association and Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (a cause dear to my heart) to family support non-profits like Habitat for Humanity and YMCA, and the various opportunities at local animal shelters, arts groups and schools; there is no shortage of worthy charitable causes.

The wine industry is a giving group.  We want to support our communities and well know the joyful camaraderie (and giving boost) wine can bring to a fund-raising affair.  So how can a winery or related businesses with a desire to contribute to the greater good, while building brand awareness, build an effective strategy without becoming a non-profit itself?  I offer donation best practices below:

1. Become a camera lens.  First, zoom away from all of the requests and into the bigger picture.  How many cases of wine do you sell per year?  What is your winery's annual revenue? 

Determine a percentage of cases and revenue you're willing to donate based on these figures.  A very generous 5000 case winery-- XYZ-- looking to donate 3% of its cases, therefore; has 150 cases with which to work.  Since XYZ's donated wine retails for $250 per case, this cash value donation translates into a very significant $37,500.

2. Think like an investor with your lens.  Now, zoom in and decide how you are going to invest this donation.  It's a sizable amount, so it must provide a return on your business and brand investment. 

Will you give one case to 150 worthy organizations?  Or will you select a focused few causes and give them 50 cases each?  This decision is somewhat personal -- how many causes are important to you and your team members?

My husband, who is a financial advisor, recommends diversification for his clients. Holding a properly varied "basket" of financial investments makes sense for most long-term investors. The key in his industry and in ours is neither too over- nor under-diversify.  In wine, I'd argue that the basket should be smaller than in finance to maximize impact.

If XYZ spreads its brand very thin with one case donated to 150 organizations, many consumers will be very lightly touched.   If XYZ chooses only one organization, a very small group of people will be touched multiple times.  The answer is somewhere in the middle depending on XYZ's personal vision for charitable support, production size and donation philosophy. 

Consider the additional ROI of involving your staff or club members in your decision of which organizations to support.  This can be a tool for retention and provide a deeper connection to your brand.  When I worked as Director of Marketing & Communications for Premium Port Wines, the Symington Family Estates' North American importer, we were given a very generous one day per month to volunteer in the community. 

XYZ winery could offer each team member five to ten cases to donate which is both a benefit and a marketing exercise.  This winery could also allocate 20 cases to its club membership and offer them a feedback survey with the opportunity to vote on a charitable cause. 

3. Test the chemistry.  Is the organization a fit wit your brand? Do you hold similar values?  And most importantly, is there personal meaning?

I have worked with Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for many years.  From a childhood friend who suffered from the disease to several adult friends who have been affected, blood cancers have always resonated with me, and I like the way the LLS organization is run.*  One of the key ways it raises money is through community participation in sports via Team in Training.  I was a triathlon member, captain and, eventually assistant coach of a Bay Area team during the near decade I lived there and found the personal fitness and fund-raising journeys of my colleagues to be a synergistic inspiration.  (There is a lot to learn from the way LLS markets its teams.)

Which organizations align with your winery?  Do these causes inspire your staff, club members and community?

4. Require a "fitness" regimen, especially for the bigger donations.  I don't expect everyone to find raising money per mile completed a worthy exercise, but I do recommend a regimented approach.  For a donation offer to be most attractive to a winery, it must satisfy the following conditions:  a) advance notice, b) co-marketing, and 3) exclusivity and recognition for larger gifts.

If XYZ agrees to give 20 cases to a 250-person high profile dinner event, I have certain expectations.  The solicitation should arrive at minimum four months prior to the event, preferably six.  (This-sized donation means your winery should be an "A list" guest, not a seat-filling invitee.)

Advanced notice gives you time to collaborate and market the event, both to the organization's members and your mailing list.  It also means that the charity will have time to include your winery's name, logo and marketing message on its invitations, website, e-marketing promotion, etc.  And you will have time to reach out to their members with a special offer beforehand if you are able to secure a mailing list.

Exclusivity means that at a significant level of donation, your wine should be the focus of the event.  (If you're donating a magnum, this doesn't apply, but for the dinner pairing example I give, it does.)  Sponsored by "XYZ Winery" is an attractive marketing tool; being buried among a list of wineries is not.

A final part of this regimen is recognition.  Exclusive wine donors should be announced and thanked during the event, which is a standard practice.  From the cocktail hour where you request signage indicating your brand and the specific wine served (and not to forget, server training so they aren't offering "a Merlot") to the announcements during dinner, your winery should be recognized.

5. Don't forget your CPA.  Our accountant friends are presently right in the middle of their "harvest," with only one month go to until tax day.  They can advise you regarding your donation practices and should be kept informed of your charitable contributions.  So be sure to document all of your good deeds -- this can come in handy when your business taxes are due and can even be used as a marketing tool.  After all, as an XYZ club member, wouldn't you be proud of supporting an organization that donated 20% of its net profits to charitable causes?

In closing, remember that the person requesting a donation from you is somewhat like the buyer you are soliciting for a placement of your wine.  You are both calling on people who receive many more requests than they can honor.  And you are both potential customers of the business.  Never be rude to someone soliciting wine for donation -- this could be a former, current or future club member.

Once you have a charitable donation strategy in place, it will be that much easier to grant those requests that fit with your winery's vision and politely decline those that don't.  Whenever I turn down a request for a charitable donation, I strive to offer an idea to the solicitor -- for example, a lead for a winery who supports the particular cause. And if it's possible to give something such as a limited time special purchase rate or complimentary tasting, I always accept because it drives new customers to my clients' businesses.

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