Firm puts profit to good work

Special to The Times

Most business owners aim to hang on to as much of their profit as possible.

Not Wafa Kanan. Her goal is to give away as much of the income from her commercial printing, graphic design and marketing company as she can without bankrupting the Northridge business.

This month the Lebanon native will set her giving goals for 2007, an annual process in which she tallies up final sales and expenses for the year with an eye to setting aside at least $100,000 to fund the charity work of her company, Unique Image Inc. This year, the company devoted more than $200,000, or more than 8% of its approximately $2.5 million in revenue, to charitable causes.

"Wherever there is a need, we try to take care of it," said Kanan, who started her company in 1996, six years after immigrating to the U.S.

Giving to charity is on the rise: Annual corporate donations to philanthropic causes jumped 22.5% to $13.8 billion last year, amounting to an average of 1.2% of profits, while overall charitable giving increased 6.1% to $260 billion, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Although most people think of big business when it comes to corporate giving, small businesses such as Unique Image play an important role in the philanthropic community. A survey published by the Better Business Bureau's Giving Alliance in 2002 found that 91% of businesses with four to 99 employees supported charitable organizations.

Charitable work has always been a focus for Unique Image and its employees, so much so that its importance is outlined in the company's mission statement, Kanan said.

That work includes designing, printing and mailing invitations for a Muscular Dystrophy Assn. fundraiser; soliciting donations and attendees for an auction fundraiser for Five Acres, a child abuse prevention agency in Altadena; and selecting a hotel for a charity event for Access California Services, an Anaheim-based nonprofit that supports local Middle Eastern families.

"She is the first one to call for support," said Nahla Kayali, founder and director of Access California Services. "She never says 'No.' "

This fall Kanan launched United Lebanon Relief, a program to help the thousands of families displaced by this summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

Unique Image's 21 employees devote company time to setting up charity fundraisers. Such work shows up on most of the company's job-cost estimating forms, which alert customers to how much of the proceeds from their jobs, typically 2% to 14%, would go to charity. Customers can designate a charity they support or choose one of the dozen or so that Kanan's company regularly serves.

"The first question people ask is 'Why?' My answer is 'Why not?' " said Michael Lloyd Jr., Unique Image's vice president of operations. "Someone has to do it, and none of us mind doing it."

Kanan, who is a director of the Los Angeles Beirut Sister City organization founded last year, often provides free or discounted services as well as her own time and sometimes money.

"She's spent what I know was her paycheck on items at a charity auction that I know she won't even use but will turn around and donate to another charity for their fundraiser," said Lloyd, who is also on the Sister City board.

Such devotion to helping others appears to exceed what most entrepreneurs attempt.

"I think it is a very unusual case -- the extent to which her profits are redistributed to nonprofits or charities and the wide range of the organizations" that she targets, said Helmut Anheier, director of the UCLA Center for Civil Society, which studies the local philanthropic and nonprofit communities.

Kanan, 39, says she is motivated in part by her family's traditional values, which include helping others less fortunate no matter how much money one has. She is particularly moved by the plight of children in need, relating their troubles to her own as a young girl in a war zone.

"I wanted to provide them with the security I personally lost at that age," she said.

Kanan was 8 years old in 1975 when the Lebanese civil war, which raged from 1975 to 1990, blew her world apart. She managed to earn a degree in political science and law from American University of Beirut, she said, only to watch her first accomplishment, a small house she had just had built for her family, damaged in a war-related explosion.

"It was a shocking experience," said Kanan, who was in the house at the time. "I wanted to be somewhere else where I felt I could make a difference."

That passion has fueled her drive to connect the needy with those who can help and to build bridges between cultures. An urge to write a book about her ideas morphed into Kanan's decision in 2004 to launch Alo Hayati, a quarterly magazine dedicated to showcasing the culture and heritage of Mideast and Mediterranean countries.

A recent issue of the magazine, whose title translates to "Hello Darling," featured articles on U.S. hookah restaurants, Paris fashions, profiles of humanitarians and a look at the coffee culture of Jidda, Saudi Arabia. The publication, which is sold through subscription and in Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores nationwide, is "only a little in the red," Lloyd said.

As a business owner, Kanan acknowledges that she must strike a balance between her sometimes "extreme" desire to do ever more for charity and the need to run a profitable business that can support her work.

She relies on Lloyd for periodic reality checks. Not that she always follows his advice.

"I rant and rave with her after hours that we need to watch the bottom line," Lloyd said. "She says, 'I know, but I won't turn away a charity or someone with a good cause.' "

In June, the company hit its annual giving goal of about $200,000. But deteriorating conditions in Lebanon brought a vow from Kanan to help the country's displaced children.

"I will not close my eyes until we raise $1 million," said Kanan, who is planning a February telethon fundraiser for United Lebanon Relief.

Next there was an appeal from Access California Services, the Anaheim social services agency. Kanan agreed to co-chair a key fundraiser, then paid for a membership to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce to raise the nonprofit's profile among local businesses.

To meet the needs of both programs, Unique Image sacrificed funds tagged for a direct mail campaign meant to attract new business to the company. The funding gap was also plugged by increased profit as the company brought in higher sales than normal this year.

Kanan, whose company is certified as a woman- and minority-owned business, relies in part on her 30 or so regular clients to help with her charity work, including Southern California Gas Co. and the Los Angeles Dodgers. She appeals to them for donations and sends them invitations to fundraising events.

Unique Image doesn't use its charitable work as a marketing hook, Kanan said, but some clients that learn of the company's focus steer business her way to help sustain her causes. The gas company, for instance, isn't working on any projects with Unique Image but remains supportive of the company's charitable outreach, said Mike Mizrahi, a regional public affairs manager at the gas company.

"It definitely added on to my desire to work with Wafa," Mizrahi said.

Kanan's bottom line: "I don't look at money as a primary goal. I look at it as a tool."

cyndia.zwahlen@latimes.com

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