As the hub of the community, it is an independent retailer’s duty to ‘do their bit’ and donate to good causes. But heartless as it may sound, you can’t say ‘yes’ to every-one who requests your help. A cluster of collection tins cluttering up the counter is hardly appealing to customers, and donating £20 to 20 different causes isn’t going to earn you any kind of credibility as a pillar of the community. So if you really want to earn Brownie points with the guides, or make a splash at the local swimming club, then you have to make a clear commitment to that particular group.

Deciding who to help isn’t easy - there are plenty of deserving causes - so it’s worth taking time to consider which are most relevant to your community, and how many you can afford to help.

“We used to collect for lots of different groups,” says Donna Morgan, who runs the Best-One store Brownlies of Biggar in Lanarkshire with husband Bruce. “We’ve always done bits and pieces, but we never got any acknowledgement from the charities.”

So instead of giving money to a random mix of groups, the store is concentrating its fundraising on a national charity with a strong local connection. “A Macmillan Cancer Support nurse works in the area. She has helped a lot of people locally, so we decided we would help them,” says Donna.

“We used to collect for lots of different groups. We’ve always done bits and pieces, but we never got any acknowledgement from the charities.”

Donna Morgan, Best-One store Brownlies of Biggar in Lanarkshire

A big benefit of working with a national charity is that they have dedicated staff who can help with fundraising activities, promotional materials, and raising awareness of a store’s charity work in the local press. Once Brownlies had partnered with Macmillan, the charity immediately helped the store to get a story published in the local Carluke Gazette, announcing that Brownlies had pledged its support for the group.

Becky Sparkes, director at Norton House Retailing, which owns three Spar stores in Birmingham and Worcestershire, also advocates taking a more structured approach to charitable donations. She has mapped out all the groups that she wishes to support over the next 12 months and set aside a budget for fundraising events. “I meet with staff to discuss which causes to support over the course of a year. Spar helps with the NSPCC, so we go with them on national charities, and then stick to local groups for our independently-run events.”

The firm recently raised £375 for local children’s hospice Acorns, and £500 for the Wythall Animal Sanctuary.

David Knight and his wife Lynette, who run Knight’s Budgens of Hassocks in West Sussex, haven’t looked back since they switched to a more structured community support plan. “Because our store was owned by Budgens previously, it was expected we would offer donations, but it didn’t really mean anything,” says Lynette. Instead, the firm has made a long-term commitment to a selection of local groups, including the Beavers, football club, schools and rotary club, with a community budget of £20,000.

“If you’re seen to be giving back to the people who are supporting you every day, it can only be a good thing,” points out Lynette.

Kishor Patel, who owns six stores in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire as part of Houghton Trading, has a rolling calendar of activities, mainly focusing on local groups. “It’s an 80/20 rule - we will support eight local charities and two national charities,” explains Kishor. “We get approached by many charities, so we support those which we feel make a real difference. They have to have structure and credibility, and our support can give some gravitas to encourage others to support them, too.

“We believe in less is more - we support several key charities or good causes, such as Toddington Elders and Hemel Sevens football team, for the longer term.”

Gravelle’s Budgens, which comprises three stores in Cambridge, concentrates on local causes, too, through its new Community Involvement Programme (CIP). Says people and marketing manager Emma Cameron: “I know my customers would rather give a pound and see it go to local schools, charities and clubs, rather than a national charity where they won’t see a direct impact, and many people already give to national charities.”

But she will also consider national charities in special circumstances. “If national charities can make a local connection then we may help them.” For example, some children from Chernobyl came to the UK last year to spend time with families in and around Sawston, and Gravelle’s Budgens supported them with daily hampers of fruit and individual packed lunches for their journey home.

To help make the decision-making easier, Emma has introduced an application form for groups requesting support. “If someone takes the time to fill in the form and say why they need money, how it will help and how we might benefit, then we know they mean business.”

Limiting the number of groups you support means that you are likely to raise more money. But you also have to engage with customers and your community on an emotional level if you really want the business to gain acknowledgement for its goodwill.

One way to create more interest in your donation is to get to know the group you are helping. Then you can find out exactly what your money is being spent on and publicise this. Rather than simply sending community groups a cheque, Kishor and his team take the trouble to meet them in person. “We go to the local good cause to see what they do, how the monies will be used and will benefit the community,” he says. Kishor then informs the local media of what the store’s money is helping the community group to achieve, and the activity is highlighted in-store and on the company website.

Nisa Local Houghton Regis recently gave £250 to over-60s group Recycled Teenagers to go on a summer outing, while the Neptune Square branch donated £300 to the Parkside 50+ Club for a special outing and an annual picnic. Such initiatives have been picked up by local media, creating an instant association between the store and a heart-warming story, showing the store in a positive light.

If your charitable donation is going towards products or equipment, then consider whether it is possible to incorporate the store’s branding to reinforce the association. “We gave £200 to High Wych Primary School in Sawbridgeworth to buy books for the school library,” says Emma. “We’ve put a Gravelle’s CIP sticker in each of the books so that every time parents open the book, they will see the store. It’s a drip-feed effect.”

Organising your own event is another way to ensure that you gain credit for your charity work, although it takes careful planning to cover costs and ensure that you will raise a worthwhile amount.

Brownlies has been busy organising a Firewalk for later this month. “It will cost £1,500 to put on the event and people pay £30 to take part and walk barefoot over hot coals,” says Donna. “We hope to raise at least £2,500 for Macmillan.”

Costcutter Wath owner Sat Deo and wife Tammy came up with an equally attention-grabbing idea for a fundraiser they held over the summer in South Yorkshire. For £1 a go, customers were given the chance to soak Sat, who bravely spent an hour in the stocks as part of a family fun day. The event raised £374 for Help for Heroes.

Staff at Frankmarsh Stores in Barnstaple, Devon, have also gone the extra mile to raise funds for charity, organising a coffee morning last month. The whole team dressed up, making for a great photo opportunity, and customers jumped at the chance to join in. “My team always choose a theme and this year it was Worzel Gummidge,” says owner Lesley Brown. “Customers joined in by baking cakes as well as buying them, and we had lucky dips in the compost heap for the children.” The county councillor even popped in to lend some support, and the event raised £225 for Macmillan.

It undoubtedly takes more effort to plan your charity work, rather than simply adding another collection tin to the counter, but the rewards speak for themselves.

“The additional benefits are that people know you are there for them - you aren’t a big corporate machine,” says Becky. “It means that people could come to us over Tesco next time they need a bottle of milk. Helping with charities helps bring people together. It means that they see us as people and get to know us.”

Kishor is equally positive: “I feel taking part in charity works gives a sense of community, builds close links with customers, and creates reputation and respect that money cannot buy.”

Make charity work a good cause, not a lost cause

The latest Voice of Local Shops Report from the Association of Convenience Stores shows just what a generous bunch convenience retailers are. More than three-quarters of retailers (76%) collect money for charity, while 26% provide funding or support to community events, and 23% sponsor a local team or activity.

However, a few simple steps can ensure you not only help the groups involved, but also help your business by getting acknowledgement for your good deeds:

Set yourself a criteria and budget for which groups you choose to help

Ensure that the groups you help have a special link with your community

Plan how you will help these groups across the course of a year

When making a donation, look at what the money is going towards and how you might publicise this

Think of events which engage customers and create photo opportunities

Keep the local media informed of your activities.