Bagging Benefits of Giving : Retailers Expanding Philanthropic Ways


In this season of giving, more California retailers are creating or expanding non-traditional philanthropic programs, raising their corporate profiles and their profits.

Companies tend to make donations of money to causes--particularly during the holiday season. But recent polls show that companies generate more goodwill when they're directly involved in communities.

Gap Inc. is among the growing number of retailers with community action programs. Gap--operator of the Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy chains--launched its program in 1992, giving employees at its San Francisco headquarters up to five hours per month in paid leave for volunteer work. Gap expanded the program last year by encouraging its store employees to volunteer for community programs. The company's Southland stores recently completed toy and book drives, donating the goods to schools and day-care centers.

Such programs bolster Gap's image, creating the kind of goodwill that generates additional business, said Molly White, senior director of the Gap Foundation.

"It's very important for a company with a high profile to show that it cares about the areas in which it operates," she said. "For us, this is also a morale booster. Employees appreciate the company because it allows them time for community work."

Such community involvement is also encouraged by Los Angeles-based Rhino Records and Ventura-based Patagonia, a clothing catalog and retail store operator. Both companies allow employees time off for volunteer work. And both are members of the Southern California chapter of Business for Social Responsibility, a coalition that promotes community involvement.

BSR, based in San Francisco, was founded in 1992. The Southland chapter was formed by 35 companies in June 1995. The group now has 76 members and ranks second in size among the organization's 11 chapters.

The chapter's growth is a sign that more companies realize there are benefits to being an active corporate citizen, said Jessica Laufer, a member of the group's steering committee and head of Laufer Associates, a Los Angeles-based public relations and marketing firm.

"Customers have demonstrated that they are more likely to do business with a company engaged in corporate social responsibility," Laufer said. "Philanthropy is a way of giving back, but companies can distinguish themselves from competitors through more active involvement in communities."

A recent national survey by the Roper Poll supports that contention. Of those surveyed, 62% said they would patronize a retailer that actively supports a cause they care about if its price and quality are equal to those of competing merchants.

Laufer said causes related to education and health are the leading choices among companies. AIDS is a health problem that many retail and apparel companies are addressing, she said.

Macy's West, the San Francisco-based operator of that chain's Western stores, organizes an event designed to generate public and corporate interest in the problem. The Macy's West Passport fashion show has been raising money and publicity for Bay Area AIDS organizations since 1988. The retail division expanded the effort in September by staging a Santa Monica Passport show involving celebrities.

The campaign tally was completed this week, and Macy's West announced that it raised $1.5 million in 1996. The support came from American Express, 30 other corporate partners, and from the companies, community groups and individuals who bought tables at the fashion shows. A foundation affiliated with Federated Department Stores, the corporate parent of Macy's, provided matching funds.

More than 40% of funds will support organizations involved in AIDS-related programs in Southern California. The Magic Johnson Foundation, Project Angel Food and the UCLA Center for HIV and Digestive Diseases are among the major recipients.

"Passport is a theatrical event that sets us apart . . . and creates goodwill," said Larry Hashbarger, a community relations director for Macy's West. "You can't quantify it, but some people do shop at our stores because of our activities."

George White can be reached by fax at (213) 237-7837.

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