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Bringing structure to charitable giving

by Ken Wysocky | Automotive News | 11-14-2016
Instead of just writing checks to local charities, Street Auto Group encourages employees to get involved personally.

At Street Auto Group in Amarillo, Texas, charitable giving used to be a fairly straightforward affair. A golf tournament fundraiser, for example, might merit a check for $500, plus a box of beer koozies adorned with the company's name. 

But since 2013, when Street Volkswagen joined the company, the dealership group has taken a more systematic and hands-on approach to community involvement. 

First, it changed to a more personal approach. Think hug instead of a handshake. Now, employees are personally donating more than 1,000 hours a year of volunteer work for numerous charitable groups. 

Second, the group got more organized in its efforts. 

To more effectively marshal employee-volunteer efforts, the company created a community impact calendar. It features a major charitable event every month, plus about a dozen smaller events.

Finance Manager Micah Barfield brought home a furry friend from a pet-adoption event.

Vetting all groups

Representatives from the VW store and the group's other dealership, Street Toyota, meet weekly to decide what events to endorse. The dealerships vet all groups before sponsoring them. "We want to know who they are and what they bring to the community, how many people they affect," said John Luciano, a managing partner at Street Volkswagen. 

Added Flo Lopez, Internet sales manager for Street Volkswagen: "We're jumping into the social media pool with them, so their face is our face and vice versa. So you have to be careful about what groups you support." 

The dealership group and its staff support myriad causes. Along with numerous fundraisers for nonprofit groups and cancer patients, employees paint houses, participate in community cleanups and organize seasonal coat and toy drives. Sometimes groups hold activities at the dealerships, such as a pet-adoption event at which 27 dogs received new homes. The company allows employees to attend nonprofit groups' luncheons during work hours, Luciano said. 

To support major events, the company goes all-in with a promotional blitz that includes publicity on its website, videos on closed-circuit TVs inside the dealerships and coordinated social media efforts. The social media efforts include reaching out to the two dealerships' 15,000 followers on Facebook. 

The numbers tell the story. Ten years ago, the company donated approximately $22,400 to charitable groups, with limited employee involvement. In 2016, the company will contribute roughly half as much money -- about $13,000 -- while employees will donate some 1,800 hours of volunteer time, said Lopez. 

In the meantime, Street Volkswagen's sales have increased, despite the Volkswagen emissions-cheating scandal that broke last year. This year, the dealership is on pace to sell 525 new vehicles vs. 404 last year. It expects to sell 950 used vehicles vs. 775 last year, said Luciano. 

It's difficult to prove that the new approach directly spurred the increased sales. But Luciano and Lopez believe that strong anecdotal evidence lends some credence to such a conclusion. "We use various tracking methods at community events to track engagement -- things such as discount coupons, special offer fliers and limited "event-only' specials," Lopez told Automotive News. "And we've noticed an increase in Internet and showroom traffic that's attributable to the specific community events."

Cynics might contend that businesses donate money to charities only for the tax write-off and self-promotion aspects. And there's no doubt that charitable activities motivate consumers; one survey showed that more than 80 percent of consumers consider corporate social-responsibility efforts when deciding what to buy, where to shop and what products and services they'll recommend. 

"Without question, people like to do business with companies when they know what they're made of -- that have heart," Luciano said. 

"But somewhere along the line, you have to get across why people should do business here. Just being a local dealership isn't enough anymore," he said. "People want to know that the dollars they spend are going back into the community." 

Luciano also noted that boosting sales isn't the company's sole motivation. "Being involved makes our employees better, too," he said. "Moreover, this community has been so good to us for 30-some years, so we feel like we've got to give back. We want to make the community better -- get people to stay here. Too often, kids go away to college and never come back, and we need them in our community."


Critical mass

The opening of Street Volkswagen provided a catalyst for the change. With two dealerships instead of one and more employees, the company felt it had the numbers to make more substantial contributions to community efforts. Furthermore, company officials felt a more personal approach would offer greater benefits than writing checks. 

"When we just donated money, the same groups would ask for support year after year," Lopez said, noting that the two dealerships receive about 250 charitable-donation requests annually. "We were sending out thousands of dollars, but never saw the faces of the people affected or attending the [charitable] events. 

"Now instead of just cutting checks year after year and throwing them in the mail, we're rolling up our sleeves and going to work."



Personal and systematic
Street Auto Group encourages employees to get involved personally with local charities and focuses its community efforts on 1 major event and about a dozen smaller ones each month.