Are you a small business owner who’s interested in giving back to your community, but is concerned about the financial demands? It’s important to remember that not all acts of philanthropy require substantial donations. In this episode, Gene Marks along with RiseUp Founder and Executive Director, Matt Conway, discuss how small businesses can support their communities by volunteering and partnering with a nonprofit.
Key Podcast Highlights
- How Can Small Business Owners Give Back to Their Communities?
- Offering financial support to a charity or a nonprofit
- Donating resources to organizations that need it
- Organizing a volunteer campaign or an event for a nonprofit
- Creating a mentorship program for local youths who are interested in your particular industry
- How Can Engaging in Community Outreach Programs Help Your Small Business?
- By creating opportunities for you and your staff members to volunteer together, you are helping boost employee morale and camaraderie.
- Your company’s charitable work could open new doors in terms of networking, particularly if your efforts garner some publicity.
- There’s also an intrinsic joy that comes from knowing that you play an active role in your community.
- How Do Small Business Owners Decide What Kind of Nonprofit to Work With?
- Do your research and find an organization that’s consistent with your company’s values and mission.
- Consider your personal passions as well as the causes that are important to you and then, look for a nonprofit that supports or promotes them.
- What Should Small Business Owners Expect When They Get Involved With a Nonprofit?
- If you plan to work with a nonprofit, particularly a smaller one, you’ll need to recruit as many volunteers as possible because they don’t always have the workforce they need to execute their various campaigns.
- You should also tell your employees that they’ll need to roll up their sleeves when they work alongside the nonprofit staff members.
- Lastly, it would be a tremendous help to a nonprofit if you could offer some support with their administrative tasks and resource acquisitions.
The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are for informational purposes only, and solely those of the podcast participants, contributors, and guests, and do not constitute an endorsement by or necessarily represent the views of The Hartford or its affiliates.
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Gene: Welcome to The Small Biz Ahead podcast. We interviewed great experts that offer advice and tips to help you run your business better. Hey everybody. Welcome back to another episode of the Hartford’s Small Biz Ahead podcast. My name is Gene Marks. Thank you so much for joining us. I’m here with Matt Conway. Matt is the founder and executive director of the “Rise Up Group.” Matt, first of all, thank you very much for joining us.
Matt: Thank you. Thank you for having me. This is exciting.
Gene: Yeah, happy to have you here as well. Where are you based?
Matt: Hartford is our home base, but we have presence all throughout Connecticut in all the counties.
Gene: Very cool, very cool. Yeah, we talk to people all around the country, but sometimes we talk to… we’ve had guests on that have been from the Hartford area as well. That’s obviously where we are based, but the kind of stuff that you’re doing really has a national impact. Tell us a little bit about the Rise Up group and what you guys do.
Matt: Yeah, thank you. So Rise Up was founded in 2012 as a youth development and mentoring program in the north end of Hartford. We were working with youth from Weaver High in Hartford, and our program was based on three pillars of success, support, access, and service. So support was one-on-one mentoring. One of the founding reasons behind Rise Up was the fact that I was in high school and got an internship at a private equity company because it was one phone call away for my dad. The premise of Rise Up is giving anybody, no matter what your zip code is, access to that type of network. Access came in getting the kids job and career opportunities. So we’d bring them to companies like The Hartford and do what we call a career access stay and really expose the kids, not just to one career path at a company, but whether it’s HR, law, accounting, marketing, really the whole gamut and try and build natural mentoring relationships with the companies and the kids.
Matt: Then service was, the students had to go out and do community service in Hartford. That’s really where the mural work that we’re doing today was born out of. In 2015, the students wanted to do a big mural project as part of their community service that year. It was a big wall in downtown Hartford that was all tagged up. First thing you see when you get into the city, you could see it from Interstate 91 South. So kind of a real eyesore, not welcoming. So we worked with five local artists from Hartford with the students and with the community to redo the mural. It was on the back of a Goodyear building that’s since closed. But it was a really powerful project.
Matt: At the time there was no public art organization like ours to call up and ask how to do something like this. So once we did that first project, other nonprofits and businesses saw what we did and was like, how did you do that? So we kind of defacto became the public art source in Connecticut because we started in that project in 2015 and no one was really doing that work in the state. So now it’s expanded statewide. We’ve done over 150 mural and place making projects across the state, invested over a million dollars in public art, working with hundreds of artists, community members and youth to make this possible.
Gene: That’s amazing stuff. Can I ask, how big is the organization?
Matt: So I’m the only full-time employee, and I just started as a full-time employee in November of last year. So I was doing this as a volunteer for the first 10 years. I do have a lot of support staff that either work as a volunteer capacity or what we call regional directors in the different counties, more of a part-time type of role. But we also have over a hundred artists that they’re the ones out there executing these projects, which is how we’re able to complete so many. So we’re really kind of the middle ground of raising the money, getting the approvals, incorporating the community, making public art more than just the art, but really how can this tell a message and have a lasting impact.
Gene: You just became an employee there. You said you were volunteering for a number of years, so what were you doing before this?
Matt: Yeah, so my background’s in finance. I worked at GE Capital right out of college in their financial management program, actually based our initial kind of rise up concept off of the many leadership development programs out there in the corporate world. So I worked there and then I worked at a healthcare startup called CareCentrix. Most recently I was at Cigna Group working in their ever north division in health services. So my background has been implementing and running multi hundred million dollar plus projects across the country. So really applying that skill now locally to manage all this public artwork, and beyond public artwork, it’s youth development. So we actually have hundreds of interns per year of at-risk youth in different cities helping to create this public art as well.
Gene: So what drove you to this? There’s a lot of different nonprofits, charities, organizations, all doing great stuff. What sort of drove you to this?
Matt: Yeah, so I kind of said earlier, it was almost an accident in being in the right place at the right time with the right expertise. When our students wanted to do this mural project, at the time it was just another community service project as part of our many we’ve done. But because murals have such a lasting impact and such a visual impact, I think that’s really what helped it grow.
Matt: We did a couple large scale projects for Cirque du Soleil in downtown Hartford that started to just build that momentum up and we were only doing maybe two to three murals a year. It wasn’t our core piece of our work until 2020 during COVID is actually when a lot of communities started seeing the power in art and using art to get people back into cities, back into downtowns, back connecting with people. So we had the expertise and just really started to help other towns, other nonprofits as funding became available, get their projects in place.
Gene: But even before that, you’re an employee. Most people don’t volunteer the kind of time that you’ve been volunteering for years to this organization. Even before it started getting involved in the murals and all that, it was mostly I think youth education, I guess.
Gene: Youth development. So just personally, what made you decide at some point to say, listen, instead of when I’m done with work and I don’t know, going home or working out or watching TV, you chose to say, no, I’m going to actually spend some time with this organization. What made you do that?
Matt: I think it’s honestly in my blood. My parents are both educators. They worked in school system their entire life helping other kids and still do it today. Both of my sisters are teachers. I kind of went left field by going to business school.
Gene: You were a money guy.
Matt: But when I was at UConn and growing up, we always did volunteer work and that kind of stuff, but in college I really just had this desire to do something more.
Matt: So at UConn, I signed up to be a part of an organization called Huskython, which is 18 hour dance marathon to raise money for the Connecticut Children’s Hospital.
Matt: They’re raising 1.5 million a year now through this dance marathon. So I signed up to be a part of it. I ended up becoming executive director that year, same year I signed up because the current executive director left. They needed someone to step in.
Gene: That’s quite the career path, by the way.
Matt: So yeah, that was a great experience in college. Junior year in college, I’m actually working full-time as an intern at Aetna at the time as well. Working with that organization for the Children’s Hospital, I’m like, I can’t sell my soul to corporate America. This gets me ticking. This makes me wake up in the morning. So after I graduated, I was always just looking for something else. And before I started at GE Capital, during the summertime, I got to do a youth employment program at Weaver High in the north end.
Matt: This is where we started Rise Up, the same high school, but we repainted the entire school, not just like white walls or gray walls. We really brought color into the school and the kids got paid to be there and students that were behind on credit and couldn’t graduate in June were given the opportunity to make up credit that summer and learned some skills painting and getting paid to paint.
Matt: So it was a really unique and cool program to be a part of. It was my first experience working in, we’ll say inner city school. I went to public school 20 minute north of Hartford, but in a world-class brand new school facility. The computer lab in this high school was leaking. They didn’t have a dedicated space for a library. Just the basics that you see that you take for granted, honestly. So I really connected with some of the kids that summer, got to understand the challenges in a very naive way, obviously as a white kid from the middle class, white kid from the suburbs.
Matt: And only two to three year, a couple years older than these high schoolers just finishing college. But anyway, finish that summer and I’m like, I got to do something. I thought about that internship when I was in high school and that one phone call, all it took, which you know, build that up from high school. Then, you got an internship your freshman year at college and just you know how the ripple effect for this type of career happens.
Gene: Sure. It sounds like all this volunteering, this has been in your blood. It was never even an option for you.
Gene: You’re always going to be volunteering somewhere and it’s unique and it’s amazing. Our audience, people that are listening and watching this right now, are running businesses. So they’re busy people. I have many clients who have kicked around giving back to their community, volunteering, getting their corporations involved. You’ve been doing this now for a number of years. What advice would you have, Matt, for if I was running a business and I wanted to do more for my community, get involved? Your group is one of many. What are some of the things you’ve seen other businesses do right when it came time to giving back to their community?
Matt: There’s a lot of different ways to give back from volunteering to financially, to helping to run a volunteer campaign or an event for a nonprofit. Some of the most powerful activities is just having your expertise, for example, and supporting nonprofits that way. So we have a really great relationship with Jerry’s Artarama in West Hartford, which is a family owned small business, and they may not be able to write us a $10,000 or $20,000 check as a grant or something like that, but they always find ways and where they can to give me a call if they get overload of paint that they can donate away or they’ll give us everything at cost, which is incredible.
Matt: So just being able to work and use your skills and expertise to support nonprofits. Another great example for some larger companies, small, large companies, we had 175 volunteers out on June 9th in the Parkville neighborhood in Hartford. The 175 volunteers were doing a number of different things in the community to beautify it from creating murals to making flower beds, to cleaning up trash, just getting your employees out one day. I know not everyone can shut down operations and do it, but just get out there and do something. Your employees, and there’s tons of studies around this, will be more productive when they get back into the office after spending eight hours out of the office giving back to the community.
Gene: By the way, it’s such a great point that you bring up. First of all, what I’m taking away from you right now is that it’s not necessarily you have to write a check to some nonprofit. Not every business can afford to do that, but there are a lot of other ways for them to participate and offering their employees is a huge way to do just that. If you could just reiterate, it’s a benefit not just to you, but it’s also to the employees as well, isn’t it?
Matt: Yeah, a hundred percent. Just the morale boost, the camaraderie. The group of 175 that were here in Parkville, they’re part of a national company and their work here actually got highlighted on the national level for their organization. So think about just even the career networking that does for your employees to become aware and just the happiness, the positivity, the culture, the list goes on, that being a part of your community as a business, what it does.
Gene: Sure. Do you have any advice for a business owner for choosing the kind of nonprofit that they can be become in involved in? I’ll be specific because I’m thinking of, I have one client that chose to get his company involved in a food bank in Philadelphia, which was great, and he donates food and all that. I had another client that got involved with a nonprofit that was, I don’t know how to put this, but it was a little bit more political. You know what I mean? You got to be a little bit careful about what kind of organization you choose because some people might not be happy about it if they don’t agree with what that organization is doing. Does that make sense?
Matt: Yeah, a hundred percent. I would say do your research. There are different designations of nonprofits as well. So some of your political nonprofits, they don’t fall under a 501C3, like public charity non profit. So organizations can do some of that research to kind of understand what type of category and what the mission and purpose is of those nonprofits. But I would really think about what is your brand? You want your service to align with your brand. While we should all give and donate and not expect anything in return, if your business can get a little bit of positive PR around it, you want it to fit your mission of the business. So if you’re a food company, food pantry work and food stuff is perfect. Jerry’s Artarama, Sherwin Williams, both of them are huge supporters of us. Obviously having their name on paint and art activity, that helps their organization.
Gene: What should a business expect if they’re going to get involved, particularly with a small nonprofit like yours. My expectations would be that you guys need all the hands you can get because it’s like just you.
Matt: Yeah, yeah.
Gene: So is that fair?
Matt: A hundred percent. Having flexibility, patience, those types of things, managing 175 volunteers and finding jobs and tasks for 175 volunteers in a four-hour period is no easy feat. Anyone that’s run a operation knows that’s a lot to take on. But deploying 175 volunteers to Connecticut Food Bank or to a YMCA or one of your big nonprofits is you’re kind of getting put into the machine already, working with a nonprofit like us, it was working in lockstep with a handful of their employees because I didn’t have a team of employees to go get tools for everybody. They met me after work at a trailer that the City of Hartford lends out tools and we piled up both of our trucks. So it’s kind of being willing to roll your sleeves up a little bit and work alongside the nonprofits, but that’s when your work as a business has the biggest impact when you’re really helping that nonprofit function on a day-to-day basis or function that day, it’s irreplaceable that support.
Gene: I guess also it really would help you if any company is getting involved with your nonprofit to ask you like, “Hey, what do you need.” Before you know, we need somebody to send out an email to our group about this.
Gene: Or we need a couple of pickup trucks or transport to do something. You know what I mean?
Matt: Yeah. No, definitely. Actually, one of the other cool activities that we did with the volunteers, we made 100 art therapy kits that are getting donated to the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. So that just took people sitting around a table and we had postcards made, so everyone wrote nice inspirational notes to the kids at the hospital too. But there’s just so many ways to volunteer your time as an organization.
Gene: Matt, it’s been great speaking with you and your organization is doing just great work. It’s called the Rise Up Group. For those of you that are watching and listening and would like more information about Matt’s organization, it’s the riseupgroup.org. Matt Conway is the founder and executive director of this organization. And again, even if you’re not in the Hartford area, getting involved with a community group like this, a nonprofit, I just speaking for myself per se, I think it’s something that we as business owners, all of an obligation to do in some way or form. And like you said, Matt, it doesn’t necessarily have to be just writing a check. There’s a lot of different ways that we can get involved.
Matt: Yeah, absolutely.
Gene: Thank you so much for joining us. It was great speaking with you. I want to wish you best to success and thanks for everything that you’re doing.
Matt: Yeah, thanks for having me. This was fantastic.
Gene: So a lot of fun. So thank you. Everyone, you’ve been watching and listening to the Hartford Small Biz Ahead podcast. If you need any advice or help or tips in running your business or like to listen to our other podcast episodes, please join us at smallbizahead.com or SBA.thehartford.com. My name is Gene Marks. Thank you so much for watching or listening. We will see you again next time. Take care.
Gene: Thanks so much for joining us on this week’s episode of The Hartford Small Biz Ahead podcast. If you like what you hear, please give us a shout-out on your favorite podcast platform. Your ratings, reviews and your comments really help us formulate our topics and help us grow this podcast. So thank you so much. It’s been great spending time with you. We’ll see you again soon.
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