The pizza doctor

Does this sound familiar? I can’t remember any week that Big Dave’s Pizza didn’t get a call or request for money in person from an organization. Many years ago, 60 Minutes did a segment on this practice. They went undercover and concluded that the majority of these dialing-for-dollars operations were boiler room operations. They also determined that the organizations that they were soliciting money for only got a very small piece of the donation, often less than 10 percent of the total take. The telemarketers kept a huge percentage for their often high-pressure appeals. Finally, the phone solicitors regularly share your phone number with their colleagues. Once you give, you’re marked as an easy touch.

This scenario is probably one of the most thinly veiled attempts to part you with your hard earned money, but it works. The “Law of Big Numbers” states that if you call enough people, you will strike pay dirt sooner or later. These folks are just doing their job and trying to make a living off of your sense of generosity and charity.

Every appeal for financial support is near and dear to the recipients of the donations. Every cause is pretty good, but some are just better. The decision to support or pass on the solicitation is a very personal decision. If you said yes, yes, yes to every request, you could go broke. This is what I call the National Beg-A-Thon.

Lest you think I’m a cynical, tight-fisted, Scrooge-like miser, I will explain my rationale. I deeply believe in helping others. I just insist on knowing the details. I don’t know of many pizzerias that contributed to their home communities more than mine. It’s part of the American fabric. I believe that the money or goods I donate should directly benefit those who make a difference in my community. In turn, these folks make it all happen for my business and me. This is the “Quid Pro Quo Test.”

I’m a pretty easy touch. I couldn’t begin to list all of the causes and groups I’ve supported over the years. In order to do this effectively you should set up an annual budget. The first time I was given the tour of the corporate headquarters of the H.J. Heinz Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my host told me the office we just passed was the department of philanthropy. He explained the company screens and processes thousands of requests a year for millions of dollars of donations. They developed grading criteria and worked within a budget. After returning home, I gave this some thought and developed my personal set of criteria based on my values.

Let’s define charitable giving and advertising. Advertising is a practice that creates the urge for your market to buy your goods or services and should always create a measurable return on investment. Donations are contributions to organizations or charitable groups.

Did you ever buy an ad in a program? Did the program make it home with you? Do you remember who else was in the program? Did you recoup the cost of the ad from increased sales attributable to the ad? Did you buy the ad from a nice person you know because it was the right thing to do? Sure, you did. I’ve done it many times; high school yearbook, soccer teams, band boosters and the list goes on. This is a donation. Since we can’t afford to donate to every great cause, even though the solicitor will tell you it’s tax deductible, we need to be able to say no without upsetting the ladies from the Garden Club.

I developed a program called Big Dave’s Community Cash. The group or individual was asked to complete a one-page questionnaire. The questionnaire asked for the following information: Legal name of the group, officers, contact name and address, amount requesting, the percentage of donation that the group held back for expenses and overhead and finally, the percentage of the amount that directly makes it to the intended recipients. When a stranger showed up with their hand out, I gave them the application. I explained that we receive scores of requests a year and want to help as many folks as we can afford to do. Please complete and return and we’ll act on it A.S.A.P. Less than half of the folks ever returned them back to us. The ones that did were ranked and given a numerical value. The highest scoring applicants were notified that we would be happy to help and the lowest scoring applicants were advised we couldn’t help them at this time because the budget was spent. Please resubmit earlier next year. We would love to help but the timing wasn’t right for this year’s budget.

I have a few charities that are near and dear to my heart. One is Walk America. It used to be called the Mother’s March of Dimes and has been around since World War II. This organization has grass roots in your town. Ninety percent of all collected monies stay in the county they were collected in for the good and benefit of kids who are born with birth defects. An organizer contacted me 15 years ago. After being convinced of the cause and researching the funds dispersements, I asked how I could help. The easy thing was to write a check, but I was moved. I have personal reasons for this. I chose to sponsor the entire event. Every April or May, the volunteers gather and start a walk. They collect pledges from friends a few weeks in advance of the walk. They also place pledge cans and paper boots in businesses for loose change. I volunteered my restaurant to be the official start and finish location. We also let the organizers use our dining room for their pre-walk committee meetings. The walks started at around 1 p.m. on a Sunday and ended around 3 p.m. I fed the walkers a couple of slices of pizza and soft drinks when they crossed the finish line in my parking lot. The planners used my office to tally the cash and present awards to the best teams. The group consistently raised between $8,000 and $10,000 in a few hours every year.

This was my big annual charity fundraiser. A nice benefit was we received lots of exposure and media coverage. My mascot, Pizza Dude, was the grand marshal and led the parade as the walkers started en masse from my parking lot with police escort.

Besides this biggie, we helped support countless local fundraisers. We decided to refrain from writing any checks. We preferred to donate our facility, staff and pizza to the benefit of the non-profits.

Some examples would be the annual high school graduating class all night lock-up party. We, along with lots of other restaurants, provided food for the students. They delivered food at closing and the seniors chowed on it till it got cold or they were full. I kept a few staff on the clock after closing and arrived at 2 a.m. with a load of fresh pizza. For years, we just dropped them off and got thanked. After doing this for 10 years or so, and donating thousands of pizzas to this very worthwhile event, I got some disturbing information. One of my high school seniors told me that many of the pizzas we dropped off were being given to the janitors and adult chaperones. It seemed like my contact had been making a practice of giving dozens of pies to helpers. They would take them home by the armload and eat off them for days or freeze them. I felt we were being taken advantage of in some of these cases.

Rather than scrap the tradition I decided to make it a controlled event. We created the “Big Dave’s Pizza Slam.” The seniors are all assigned to a 10-person team. These teams stay together all night and compete for fun and prizes. I knew we had about 18 teams. The pizza slam is a pizza-eating contest. The winning team would win a custom T-shirt commerating their awesome feat. The shirt said, “Grand Champions–Big Dave’s Pizza Slam – Class of 200X.”

We laid down a sheet of plastic sheeting on the gym floor. We arranged 18 chairs in a row on the plastic to save the floor and had the team members line up behind the chairs. Each team member would take their turn sitting in the chair and eat a slice of cheese pizza as fast as they could. When they had finished the team member behind them in line would jump in the chair and eat their slice. The fastest team to go through this exercise was the winner. The twist was the person in the chair had to sit on their hands and be force-fed by one of their team members. This was a hoot! Very exciting. Pizza Dude was there to cheer them on and hand out the collectable, commerative, one-of-a-kind shirts. They loved it, and it became a tradition. If you’re going to step up and give, why not make it memorable and be recognized?

I was privileged enough to attend a seminar by Jeff Slutsky in 1985. I bought a copy of his book Streetfighting. Jeff and his brother Marc (Ask The Experts – www.pmq.com) guided me in many of the tactics I used throughout my career. One of the all-time best ideas I got from this must read book was creating Big Dave’s Pizza Bucks. Remember the Bill Clinton $3 bills? Then the phony million dollar bills? Then the Hillary bills? Why not me?

I asked my printer to print up a quantity of Pizza Bucks with my face on the front and a photo of the restaurant on the back. We put in “In Big Dave we Trust” and the serial number was ICU812. We gave these bucks away to help non-profits sell candy bars, fruit, raffle tickets and other stuff to raise money for good causes. The high school salesperson approached you and asked if you would buy a candy bar for the band for a buck. If you do I can give you a Pizza Buck to be used anytime at Big Dave’s Pizza. This tactic was a win/win situation. Big Dave’s Pizza Bucks were so effective for so long one of my competitors ratted me out to the U.S. Secret Service. A special agent paid me a visit one day and informed me that the Pizza Bucks were in violation of several federal laws. He made a veiled threat and suggested I cease and desist, stand and deliver all of the contraband or suffer the wrath of the U.S. District Attorney. If you decide to go into the money printing business, check the laws regarding size, color and paper.

I urge you to be a good community partner and share back some of your profits. Your store’s reputation will gain stature. Pick the causes close to you and jump in with new and creative ideas to help them. Offer to donate product rather than cash whenever possible. Set a budget. It’s okay to say, “Our budget for this type of request is already spent this year. Please fill out this survey and we’ll get your group into the next round.”

NEXT STEPS If this article hasn't answered all of you questions and you want to discuss it further please visit my website at www.bigdaveostrander.com or call me at (888) BIG-DAVE.