Making a Living and a Difference with Philanthropy in Business

Photo by DAVID ZHOU on Unsplash

I didn’t realize one summer internship would change the course of my life forever.

The summer of 2011, I interned at a wish-granting organization for kids with life-threatening illnesses. I realized that so many of them would lose their hair to chemotherapy and be offered a wig or a hat. However, a lot of them wanted to wear headbands instead. Headbands were a great way for them to restore self-confidence through fashion without hiding what they’re going through with a wig or a hat.

On a whim, I started Headbands of Hope. For every headband sold, we donate one to a child with cancer.

To date, we’ve donated over half a million headbands to kids with cancer reaching every children’s hospital in the United States and fifteen countries!

I’ll be honest, it wasn’t all hearts and flowers in the beginning. I messed up a lot which I talk about in my new book Chasing the Bright Side.

But one thing I did do right is make sure my company had purpose. We’re a for-profit company with purpose built into our business model. In other words, I believe you shouldn’t have to choose between making a living and making a difference, and here are three ways your company can do just that you may not have thought of:

Three Unique Ways to Incorporate Philanthropy into Your Business

1. Educate people.

Recently, I was hired to speak at a company for their awards banquet. However, they wanted to also sponsor me to give speeches at high schools or other communities that could benefit from my talk, but couldn’t afford my rates. I was blown away by the creativity of that idea — of trying to use my speaking as a way to give back to the community.

A lot of businesses have great expertise in certain areas or know important skills they could teach, and education is a meaningful and relevant way to give back to the community or to your followers.

How can you use your business to educate others?

  • Can you offer free virtual classes?
  • Visit an elementary school to talk about entrepreneurship?
  • Host a workshop for people trying to get back into the workforce?

The best part about this path is that education isn’t just helpful to others — it also positions your company as seasoned and knowledgeable.

2. Donate items (or funding).

Donating products or money might seem like the most obvious route, but there are ways to get creative with it. At my company, for every headband sold, we donate a headband to a child with cancer. So, what we’re selling is also what we’re giving, which creates a unique experience with our customers.

Sevenly takes a unique approach by partnering with different charities every week, donating 7 percent of sales for 7 days. Not only are they able to impact a wide range of causes, they also receive cross-promotions from their charity partners, widening their reach.

If your company sells tangible items that people in need can benefit from, consider donating your extra inventory to charity; a way to move product while also giving back.

  • If your company sells a product, are there other people who need that product that you can give it to for free?
  • Or can you allocate a percentage of sales to a non-profit that’s aligned with the mission of what you’re selling?

3. Make an unconventional hire.

Giving someone a chance to work is giving them a great opportunity they might not get elsewhere. Opportunity Threads is a cut-and-sew shop in North Carolina that hires Mayan immigrants and gives them the opportunity to also be a worker-owner after 12 months of work. So, by getting your product made by Opportunity Threads, you’re also providing jobs to people in need.

Carroll’s Kitchen, a restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, hires homeless women and teaches them life skills, job training and even houses them for a year. 321 Coffee employs people with disabilities to make and serve coffee (they will be serving coffee at our conference!).

Although at Headbands of Hope I haven’t made an unconventional hire like this, I do visit prisons regularly and host business workshops for inmates to start their ideas.

Giving someone not just a job, but an opportunity reaches far beyond dollar amounts.

  • If you’re manufacturing a product, can you work with a factory that gives opportunities to people in need?
  • If you have a storefront, can you hire people to work while also giving them a training on some of the skills they need for their future?

The fact is, consumerism is changing.

Here are some stats to show that:

  • Nearly two-thirds of millennials and Gen Z express a preference for brands that have a point of view and stand for something. Kantar’s 2018 ‘Purpose 2020’ Report 
  • 64% of consumers choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues. Edelman’s 2018 Earned Brand Study 
  • 86% of consumers believe that companies should take a stand for social issues and 64% of those who said it’s ‘extremely important’ for a company to take a stand on a social issue said they were ‘very likely’ to purchase a product based on that commitment. 2018 Shelton Group’s ‘Brands & Stands: Social Purpose is the New Black 
  • Brands with a purpose set on improving our quality of life outperform the stock market by 120%. Interbrand’s Best Global Brands 2017 
  • 78% of Americans believe companies must do more than just make money; they must positively impact society as well. 2018 Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose Study

Business is no longer a hard line between non-profit and for-profit. And for entrepreneurs, it doesn’t have to be a tug-of-war between passion and paycheck: you can find ways in your business to accomplish both at once.

If you’re wondering where you should begin with philanthropy, think about this.

Where can you or your company’s greatest talents serve the world’s greatest needs? Start there. 


Ready to dream big about helping countless others, leave a legacy, and make an impact… without breaking the bank? Get our Ultimate Guide to Philanthropy in Business.

Jess Ekstrom

Jess is the founder and CEO of Headbands of Hope, which to date has donated half a million headbands to children’s hospitals in 16 countries around the world, including every children’s hospital in the United States. She’s the author of the forthcoming book, Chasing the Bright Side: Embrace Optimism, Activate Your Purpose and Write Your Own Story, and has been featured in media outlets such as the Today Show, Good Morning America, The View, Vanity Fair, Seventeen magazine, Huffington Post and Forbes. Jess is also a professional speaker and the founder of Mic Drop Workshop, an online course with the mission of empowering more women to share their message as speakers.

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