[Executive Edge] How businesses can best give back in 2014

Ezra Ferraz
Ezra Ferraz speaks to Josh Mahinay, founder of BAG943 – a company that donates one bag to a Filipino student for every bag purchased by a customer

As business leaders, it’s important to give back to the community. Some companies choose to do so through corporate social responsibility initiatives. Other people make it the express purpose of their business, making their organization a social enterprise.

In either case, we can only do so much on our own, so, we have to seek support from others. Doing so may be challenging, particularly in the Philippines, where government corruption may have bred a distrust of all activities that seek support from the general public.

I recently spoke with Josh Mahinay, the founder of BAG943 (Be a Giver), on how to best navigate challenges like these. He had great advice in this regard, having successfully localized the one-for-one model popularized by TOMs Shoes to the Philippines.

The premise is simple: For every bag purchased by a customer, another bag gets donated to a Filipino student in need. For other social entrepreneurs who might want to do the same or similarly with corporate social responsibility initiatives, he summarized his advice into a number of key points:

Network, network, network

You should treat charitable work as you would any other business enterprise: You must make it a point to network. If you make it a point to meet new people and meet new people constantly, you are bound to find the ones who can transform and uplift your campaign in some way. These can be everyone from donors and mentors to media people and partner organizations. 

Mahinay said that networking must be balanced with the campaign you’re actually networking for. “For me, a good campaign and networking are equally important. If your campaign is weak, you will not likely get support, even from your closest networks. On the other hand, meeting the right people to accelerate and sustain a strong campaign is critical. Your networks are your catalyst for success.”

Build trust through transparency

One way to create a great campaign is to earn the good faith of your network through complete transparency. Mahinay put it simply: “People support you inasmuch as they trust you. It is important that you commit to deliver your brand’s promise. You don’t make promises that you are not hundred-percent sure that you can deliver. A system that will show transparency must also be in place.”

Mahinay goes to great lengths to accomplish this in BAG943. “After every bag drive, we send a thank you note and an email update to each of our customers, along with a picture and biographical information of the beneficiary school child. The bag of each child also carries a tag that has the name of the customer-giver. This not only gives assurance, but it also allows the customer-giver and the beneficiary child to share a special bond and connection.”

Get creative in your marketing

Funds in a social enterprise or even in a corporate social responsibility campaign are limited. You must think outside-of-the-box to get the word out. Mahinay described this philosophy thusly: “Creativity is free. And if you are creative enough to make your campaign interesting, you might just get the much-needed media exposures to reach a bigger crowd.”

Avenues that Mahinay recommended in particular included social media, partnerships with other like-minded organizations, and networking events like conferences, seminars, and workshops. The latter will give you opportunities to pitch your campaign to others.

Above all, Mahinay suggested that you as a leader are your own best advocate. He makes it a point to speak about BAG943 at every available opportunity, including informal ones, such as with family and friends, and formal ones, such as interviews and speaking engagements. He said, “Word of mouth still remains the most effective marketing strategy” because  “there is power in storytelling.”

Use your choice of language strategically

In the majority of their marketing materials, BAG943 uses English as the language of communication. This was done to increase the potential audience on the Internet. Mahinay said, “With everything now done mostly online, we wanted to be able to reach an international audience.”

Sometimes, however, they will “cater to niche markets and adjust accordingly.” As an example, their most recent campaign was branded in Taglish to appeal to the cultural values that can be best expressed this way.

According to Mahinay, “Our upcoming campaign amBAG is Taglish because we are appealing to the Filipino people’s sense of nationhood, bayanihan, to help the kids from typhoon Yolanda ravaged areas be inspired to go back to school by giving them very nice quality bags and school supplies.”

Think of your campaign slogans carefully

Just as much thought should go into a charitable marketing campaign as one governed purely by profit. Mahinay shows this idea best in his explanation of BAG943’s new campaign mentioned above.

Ambag is a Filipino word, which means contribution,” Mahinay said. “In reference to this particular campaign, ambag is also short for ‘ang bag.’ Putting it in perspective, we ask the question, ano amBAG mo?, which both means, what is your contribution, and what bag are you wearing – the bag you wear and the difference it can make.”

The end result is the idea that “the choices you make have the potential to impact and change lives” even in a detail we might overlook like the “the choice of bag you buy and wear.”

Think big (but don’t forget to think small)

Mahinay recognizes the importance of targeting both corporations as well as individuals for support in any campaign. He even recommends that a team be created to seek the support of each, as they both have their own unique needs.

He said, “In our experience, closing a deal with corporations can take long because of the standard procedures that you have to follow in their system and structure. So you definitely don’t want to be too focused on that and miss the potential of individual sales.”

“When it comes to quantity, a bulk sale is a huge help,” Mahinay continued. “But it will be the individual buyer who is most likely to go around, talk and share about your campaign to family and friends, making it more personal, effective and at times, even more profitable.”

Make it easy for people to volunteer

Mahinay suggests that you create a guideline for volunteers, so as to ensure that all the many people who are excited to help out with your campaign, can. This will make sure that “expectations are clearly defined.”

In some cases, people may want to go above and beyond the call of a normal volunteer, by, for example, helping out with the business side of things. While some leaders would turn these people away, Mahinay sees the value in welcoming whatever help BAG943 can get.  

He said, “As a mission-driven business, and as a startup for that matter, one which does not yet have enough budget to spend for manpower, you appreciate any kind of help and support you get.” In return, Mahinay makes it a point to recognize the unique contributions of such volunteers whenever he can.

Encourage direct interaction with the people in need 

With some campaigns or initiatives, the people who contribute are sadly kept away from the actual act of giving to the people in need. This lessens the emotional resonance a campaign could have possibly had on contributors.

Mahinay recommends the exact opposite: Contributors are welcomed to directly participate as much as they can. He said, “You may also organize events via social media or in person that will make contributors more engaged and excited every time. The more they are involved, the more they become part of your cause.” 

With BAG943, for example, Mahinay said, “We encourage our customer-givers to join us during our bag drives and share with us the experience. Nothing is more fulfilling for the donor than to personally hand over the bag and see the joy in the smile of his beneficiary kid. To give them that kind of experience is very special and makes them want to do more.”

Create a venue for interaction and participation

It’s important to not just communicate with your contributors when you need something from them. Instead, you must build long-term relationships. This does not have to be complicated  

Mahinay, for example, said, “We created a group for our volunteers and customer-givers on Facebook where we keep them updated of what’s happening with BAG943. It has also become a venue for interactions and for everyone to share their thoughts and experiences.”

Mahinay also extends this sense of community to in-person meetups. He has a support group that meets for coffee every so often to communicate, encourage, and inspire one another. Mahinay said it best when he said, “More than just a movement, we are also a family.”


Rappler business columnist Ezra Ferraz graduated from UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California, where he taught writing for 3 years. He now consults full-time for educational companies in the United States. He brings you Philippine business leaders, their insights, and their secrets via Executive Edge. Follow him on Twitter: @EzraFerraz

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