Being Charitable (But Not a Sucker) in Your Massage Business

If you’re a massage therapist, you probably care about other people. You work with them, their stress, their aches, their disconnection from their bodies, and for the time that they’re on your table (and if you’re lucky, for a while afterward) they feel good. Relaxed. Happy. Ready to take on the world, or at least a nice nap.

So it’s no surprise that massage therapists also care about other causes. The environment. The pothole situation on Main Street. Supporting foster families. Making people understand the difference between a lectern and a podium. Whatever it is you care about, it’s natural to want your business to support the same things you do. And that’s a good thing! Biz owners have opportunities for doing good that most individuals don’t as private citizens. Why not take advantage of that for a cause you believe in?

Unfortunately, it’s easy to get sucked into the helping treadmill. First it’s a Girl Scout at the door, and it’s no problem because, let’s be honest, you wanted that box of Thin Mints anyway. Then the Easter Seals call up, no big deal, have a donation. But there are dozens, quite possibly hundreds of organizations that serve your area in ways that you know are beneficial, and all of them want a piece of your time, your energy, and above all, your money. And you’ll soon get to the point where you either learn that you’ll have to make some very strategic business decisions about who you support and how, or you’re going to end up out on the street yourself. But know that, if you avoid getting swept up in the overwhelming needs, you can contribute to the betterment of your community while still keeping your business (and your sanity) on solid footing. Here are a few things to keep in mind before you give.

It’s okay to ask “What’s in it for me?”

I know that feels like a really Scrooge McDuck thing to say out loud, but there’s a difference between you the person and you the business. And it’s not wrong to look for opportunities to contribute that are mutually advantageous.

Publicity. Do you get your name in the orchestra’s program or on the marathon’s tee shirt? A sign at the event? A flyer in the goodie bag? Will it be seen by the right people? If your clients are anxious professionals, maybe donating that gift certificate for the Toastmasters raffle makes sense. But if you’re more focused on pediatric clients or sports massage, it might make more sense to choose the PTA or charity 10K instead.

  • Bragging rights. As an individual, people often prefer to keep their donations under wraps. As a business, it can benefit both you and your chosen cause if you talk up your relationship. A blog post about how you’re honored to be a sponsor of XYZ makes you look good while simultaneously raising awareness of the cause in general. If you can tie it into your business (you support the community garden because it promotes a healthy lifestyle, just like regular massage …), so much the better. Keep in mind that some causes can be polarizing. Think about the public image you want to project before bragging about contributions to political or religious organizations, or those that are the subject of controversy.
  • New clients. Everyone wants unrestricted contributions, of course. But there are times when a gift certificate will absolutely do. Are you likely to see a ton of regulars out of someone who won a free massage in a hot dog eating contest? Probably not. But you’re definitely more likely to than you would if the prize were $50 cash. Something to consider.
  • Connections. Let’s be real about networking: there are some people it’s just really good to be on a first name basis with. And a lot of these people sit on the boards of nonprofit organizations. Does it seem sketchy to contribute just so you can chat with Laura at the Fancy Lawyers for Good Stuff League? Sure. But if you care about what they do and you can get Laura’s input on the latest City Council rule that seems like it might hurt your business … it’s something to consider.

It’s okay to think about contributions that cost you very little.

You may think your massage business, especially if it’s new or very small, has nothing to offer. But there are things you take for granted that other organizations may not have access to. Here are some you may not have considered.

  • Space. Have you ever tried to rent a meeting room? That stuff gets expensive fast. If your business has room to host even ten people, that can mean a lot to a grassroots group trying to have a meeting. What about outdoor space? Enough room for a pollinator garden or a Little Free Library? There are people who would love to maintain these sorts of things, but live in tiny apartments. Your business could be exactly the thing they need to begin. Space can also mean a parking spot, a filing cabinet, or a storage bin. A little can go a long way.
  • Awareness. Do you have a bulletin board? A blog? A bookshelf? A window? An Instagram account? It costs you almost nothing to post a flyer about a walk-a-thon or open house, share a photo from a local tree planting, or add a welcoming decal to your front door.
  • Laundry access. You’re laughing, because the jokes about massage therapists and their laundry are basically a meme at this point. But if there’s a youth group that’s taking their uniform tee shirts to the laundromat each week, that’s $3 a week you’re saving them, for just a few cents in water and electricity for you. You basically just made a $150 donation.
  • Technology. I know, you’re not an engineering lab. But you might have wifi. Or a printer. Or a fancy program to make forms. Or heck, maybe just Microsoft Office. Not everybody does. Maybe you can come to the rescue!
  • Castoffs. Who wants to sleep on frayed old linens? Dogs, that’s who. That’s right, there are some animal shelters who are happy to take on even your stained and ratty sheets and towels. Kindergarten teachers always need more (appropriate) magazines for practicing cut and paste, and a box full of shredded junk mail can be the most fun a toddler has had all day.

It’s okay to ask your clients to help.

Sometimes, your best contribution is access to the people around you: your coworkers and clients.

  • Ye olde change jar. You care, you’re broke, but hey, people are still happy to ditch their pennies to save puppies or help a local kid with medical expenses. It’s so old school, but it’s still around because it works, even if it’s just a little bit each month.
  • Welcoming “tips.” If your business is a no-tipping environment but people still have that impulse to offer something to thank you or your employees for excellent service, you can have a notice indicating that all tips are donated to such-and-such an organization. (You can even let different therapists pick their own charities, so it really does feel like they’re getting something special for great service.
  • Wooden nickel. Some stores, in order to reduce disposable bag use, began offering wooden nickels to people who brought their own reusable bags. Customers could then pick their favorite of three or so charities, and put their nickel in the corresponding box. The equivalent amount of money was then donated by the business at the end of the week/month/whatever. Is there a behavior you’d like to reinforce among your clients? You could donate a small amount (maybe a dollar or so) from their massage if they bring their own reusable water bottle rather than using up a plastic cup, or walk/bike/take public transportation instead of filling up your tiny parking lot.
  • Matching donations. Sometimes people will give more if they know that someone else will add to their generosity with their own. If you have some cash you were wanting to donate anyway, you can offer to match donations to that amount. Or if you’re wanting to donate free massage to people in need but can’t afford to use up spots with no pay, you can invite clients to buy a “gift” massage for a deserving individual at half price. You and the client are essentially splitting the cost of a donated massage, half in cash, half in labor.

It’s okay to get help yourself.

When we think about how we can serve the community, we don’t often think about being served ourselves. But if you’re the target population of a given organization (single mom? small business owner? person with asthma? person living in Cleveland?), availing yourself of the services they offer can actually be a positive thing.

  • If funding is justified by use. Do you have a library card? Do you use it? If you love your local library, actually using their services helps the numbers show legislators how important a well-funded library system is to the community.
  • If you’re likely to be a success story. Know what looks good on a grant proposal? People who used an organization’s services and then went on to kick some serious butt. So go to that new entrepreneur workshop even if you think you might have learned plenty  in massage school. (Or from Massage Business Blueprint!)
  • If participating breaks down stigma. Remember when Prince Harry got publicly tested for HIV? I doubt it was because he didn’t trust his own doctor. It was to show that HIV testing is important, normal, and safe. This doesn’t mean you should start taking limited resources for yourself just for show, but if people seem embarrassed to make use of your neighbor’s Little Free Pantry because they’re afraid of looking poor, it might be worthwhile to let folks see you grabbing a box of crackers on occasion, as well as donating.

AND, it’s also great to ignore all of this and give generously of your own money to causes you really care about.

But to do this, you need to make choices and commit to them. You commit to saying no, no, no, no, no, except for the times you have prepared in advance to say yes. Here are some factors to help you figure out what that yes looks like.A few big gifts have more impact than tons of small ones. They need to pay someone the same amount to process your payment, whether you contribute $2 or $2000.

  • A few big gifts have more impact than tons of small ones. They need to pay someone the same amount to process your payment, whether you contribute $2 or $2000.
  • Small and local needs you more than big and global. The Red Cross cares less about your small potatoes than the adult literacy class up the road.
  • Needs are different from wants. A new addition to the church building would be nice, but making sure all the members have enough to eat and a warm place to sleep can be even nicer.
  • It’s important to give back to those who gave to you. This can mean the park where you walk your dog, the hospital where they caught your diabetes early on, or the Massage Therapy Foundation that sponsored the research you use in your practice every day.

Once you make your decisions about who to support with how much money, practice saying these words: “Thank you so much for all the important work you do, but my giving budget is already set for the year.”

And then, because they’ll keep asking, “No, thank you.”

And “No, thank you,” again, because they are also just trying to do their job to the best of their ability, and you are classy even when you find that frustrating at times.

Now go make the world a better place.

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