Small Businesses Take Up the Haiti Cause


After working at several big-name fashion companies like Jill Stuart and Forever 21, Amber Becton decided to start her own business, a hand-made fashion line called Lanya, in November. Sure, the economy was still reeling, and yes, she knew there was less of a demand for boutique products, but for Becton, it was all about pursuing a career that she could be passionate about. Now, despite the fact that it's a constant challenge for any new business to stay in the black, Becton has committed to donating 15% of all the sales she makes to the Haiti relief effort. Like the choice to start a company, Becton’s decision to donate comes from the conviction to do right by herself and for others.

“Bigger companies often do charities mostly because it’s a good marketing opportunity,” she said. “But I don’t really see it like that. This cause is something that makes me feel better, knowing that I am contributing to other people.”

Becton spends much of her time at home, designing products with the television playing in the background. When Haiti was ravaged by an earthquake two weeks ago, Becton found herself glued to the news, absorbing the total devastation. Soon, she learned of the massive outpouring of charity that occurred through text messages and social networks, and was immediately inspired to do something. (To date, more than $20 million has been raised by text messages.)

She decided to give away 15% of her sales because “10 percent just didn’t seem significant enough.” Since her business is so small, Becton says she didn’t really have to worry about working her donations into a strict budget. It was her decision alone what to do with her money, though she did face some opposition. “My husband’s response was basically ‘Is this forever?’”

Even in an ailing economy, many small business owners like Becton are finding creative ways to help the people of Haiti. Felicia Hatcher, owner of The Feverish Ice Cream Truck in Florida, told us that her company made a small monetary donation to the Haiti cause, but they wanted to do more. That's when they came up with a novel idea.

“We don't have a lot of money but what we do have is Ice cream,” Hatcher said. “So we drove around to different [relief] organizations and gave the volunteers ice cream as well as all the people that were dropping off supplies. We also drove around to offices and picked up their supplies to drop off at food for the poor and in exchange we gave them an ice cream bar.”

Other small businesses have found ways to turn the Haiti cause into a useful promotional tool.  Blueprint for Style, an image consulting business in Washington D.C., ran a promotion last week advertising that the company would donate $5 to Haiti each time someone signed up for their business. Monica Barnett, the founder of the company, told us that she came up with the idea because it was a way to help that would not expend any of her resources. Also, she said this promotion “could generate money quickly and would benefit my company.”

To get a sense of just how many entrepreneurs out there are getting into the Haiti cause, just look at eBay. The e-commerce giant has encouraged sellers on its site to donate a portion of their final sales to a nonprofit working in Haiti. According to Amy Skeeters-Behrens, the head of eBay’s Global Citizenship Marketing division, more than 13,000 sellers have already participated in this, and along with eBay shoppers, they've raised $1.2 million.

While giving money is the most common way to help, many companies are interested in making material donations. However, Shira Levine recently argued in a piece on Business Insider that it would be a mistake to give these kinds of donations to Haiti. “It’s difficult and time-consuming for an organization on the ground to open random boxes from around the world, check the condition of the donations, and then figure out where and how to distribute the goods during the aftermath of an earthquake,” Levine wrote. And that leaves out the difficulty of just getting the goods to ship to a disaster zone.

This didn’t stop Exxel Outdoors, which sells outdoor recreation gear, from trying to donate 1,000 sleeping bags to Haiti. Exxel has contributed sleeping bags to previous natural disasters like Katrina, but this time they experienced some trouble. “I had a little frustration that first day, when I called to many organizations that said, ‘Yes, ship us your bags.’   But they couldn't tell me when or how they were going to get them to Haiti,” said Harry Kazazian, the founder and CEO of Exxel.  Eventually Kazazian lucked out and was able to partner with the Pan American Development Foundation, which was able to organize delivery.

For all the other small businesses out there without these connections, we recommend that you stick to monetary donations for the time being. Although handing out ice cream to charitable Americans sounds pretty good too.

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