Foodies and Fundraising: How Restaurants Are Using Strategic Philanthropy to Spur Growth

From your local mom and pop diner to the largest corporate chains, restaurants have generally always played a role in nonprofit fundraising ventures. Whether soliciting gift cards for a silent auction or catering for an annual fundraising dinner, or requesting meals to be provided for program participants, charities have often relied on the generosity of the restaurants in their communities to fulfill their missions.

This in-kind assistance from dining establishments in the community is an essential part of a charity’s budget almost every year. In fact, those of us working regularly in the nonprofit sector develop a working knowledge of the restaurants most likely to lend a hand to area charities. But what if the benefit wasn’t only realized by the charity? What if, instead of just giving donations to local charities in an effort to give back, restaurants could use their charitable giving to increase their own profits and image?

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Use Your Head to Achieve Your Heart’s Desires

That is where strategic philanthropy comes into play. If you were to Google it, you would probably find dozens of various definitions for strategic philanthropy. But regardless of each source’s spin, “strategic philanthropy” really has one basic and prevailing theme – using your head to achieve your heart’s desires.

No matter what you call it, strategic philanthropy allows businesses to connect their company to a nonprofit organization or cause in a partnership that is mutually financially beneficial. In this way, while the business is being helpful and working for the common good of the community, while also receiving parallel benefits.

Be Strategic with Your Business

Being strategic with your business’ philanthropy isn’t heartless- it’s wise. Businesses are strategic in their management, focusing continuously on methods to decrease costs and increase profits, while maintaining employee morale. The most successful are learning to use a corporate foundation to become strategic in their giving as well. Particularly for small to medium sized business owners, a major part of being strategic in philanthropy involves looking out for your own bottom line just as much as you are looking out for the community within which you work. Strategic management, in essence, allows a business’ road to success to be paved with good intentions.

Corporate Social Responsibility

In the restaurant industry, and throughout the business world, “corporate social responsibility” and “cause marketing” are the most common forms of strategic philanthropy. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a broader term used to describe a business’ efforts to improve society in some way, whether through corporate giving, a company foundation, or implementation of sustainable practices in their work.

The practice of being socially responsible has rapidly become woven into the fabric of marketing campaigns in the corporate world. In fact, as reported by The Government & Accountability Institute, the number of leading businesses publishing corporate social responsibility reports rose from just 20% in 2011 to a whopping 81% of companies reporting on their social responsibility in 2015.

Partner Up

So how are restaurants getting their piece of the strategic philanthropy pie? More and more, restaurants are strategically partnering with area nonprofit organizations in an effort to raise money for the nonprofits while (perhaps most importantly) generating new and increasing business and driving their marketing efforts. Creating a win-win scenario, restaurants are partnering with area charities to promote the charities cause and the restaurants cuisine, to result in money in both partner’s pockets.

Many restaurants offer nonprofit groups a popular way to fundraise with “Dine and Donate” fundraisers. A restaurant night fundraiser is a simple way for charities to raise money for their cause, but it is also a great marketing opportunity and potential long-term profit driver for the restaurant. These events do not require any up-front investment of time or money for the restaurant.

Sure, they have to agree to contribute some portion of the proceeds from the event to the charity, but if held on a traditionally slow night the event will likely bring in more business than the restaurant would normally experience on an off night. Further, the charity’s promotion of the event and its contribution to their cause may bring in troves of diners that otherwise may have never tried the establishment. These diners may come back again and again, bringing more and more future profit to the restaurant.

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Examples of Restaurants Using Strategic Philanthropy

BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse Fundraisers

BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse will host a fundraising event for your schools, churches, or charities. The standard fundraiser donates 15% of the total food and soft beverage purchase from guests who bring in flyers for the event.

4 Rivers Smokehouse

4 Rivers is well-known for their commitment to giving back through their company foundation.Their corporate foundation mission is simple – to use God-given gifts to support the local community, schools, and charity organizations. Through their corporate foundation, The 4R Foundation, in 2017 helped more than 950 local schools, churches and charitable organizations, said a release.

Typically keeping its restaurants closed on Sundays, the company recently launched a 7-day-a-week food truck on location at Disney Springs in Orlando, and all net proceeds from sales every Sunday will support The 4R Foundation.

Chipotle Mexican Grill

Even before Chipotle Mexican Grill founded its corporate foundation, Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, the fast-casual burrito chain had already donated heavily to good causes. With the launch of its own company foundation in 2011, the chain has been able to streamline its efforts with impressive results: in 2013 alone, the Cultivate Foundation donated over $750,000 to non-profits promoting causes dear to the company’s heart including food literacy, good stewardship for farmers, and improved livestock and agricultural practices


In San Francisco, this modern American restaurant has philanthropy at its core: Each time a diner orders chef Jason Fox’s $60 tasting menu, which might feature salt-cured foie gras with seaweed brioche, $10 goes to a local nonprofit. Customers then vote on which charity will receive the money; there’s a new beneficiary every two weeks.

Buffalo Wild Wings

BWW has their Eat Wings, Raise Funds initiative that helps out local organizations near BWW restaurants. Since its inception, Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants have donated more than $1 million to local organizations that assist youth and families in need, military families and disaster relief efforts. That’s a lot of tax breaks!

Panera Bread

Panera Bread has been fighting hunger in various ways for 25 years through its company foundation, including extensive work with Feeding America. In addition, one of the franchise’s most progressive outreach achievement has been the establishment of its Panera Cares® community cafes.

Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes

Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes advertise their strategic efforts as Fun-Raisers. Through planned events, 15% is returned to the nonprofit organization.

Talk of the Town Restaurant Group

Talk of the Town has really jumped on the CSR band wagon. The restaurant group offers numerous giving-back efforts throughout the year. For example, they facilitate their Round Up for Charity program, in which all the restaurants participate, asking guests to round up their check to the nearest dollar to support Central Florida charities. The restaurant group pays the cost of running the program through its corporate foundation, Talk of the Town Restaurant Group Foundation, so all the money collected goes directly to charity.


McDonald’s is of course one of the most widely recognized brands in the world, so it only makes sense that Ronald McDonald House Charities is one of the most widely recognized charitable organizations as well. Founded in 1974, the organization offers families of seriously ill or injured children a “home away from home” at little to no cost with home cooked meals and private rooms. The children can have access to the best medical care possible without having to worry about unrelated logistics, while building brand rapport that makes it billions each year!


Start a Company Foundation

When done right, corporate social responsibility can allow restaurants to leverage their customer base, together with a charity’s constituent base, to join them in fundraising and advocacy. Creating a company foundation for your restaurant to use to operate strategic philanthropy programs can offer a competitive advantage for your growing business. People have always gone out to eat simply because they like to go out and eat. Now, factored alongside service, food, location and price, potential customers will also choose to dine with you based on your restaurant’s commitment of sustainability or to a particular cause.

New customers might make a decision to dine out at your restaurant because they know proceeds that night are going to a cause they believe in. Or they might tack an extra dollar or two onto their tab as a donation at the behest of a server, adding to your company foundation’s total impact.

Added Benefits for Restaurants

Restaurant marketers can also capitalize on this opportunity by thanking diners for their contribution with special discounts or return offers. Many restaurant brands, including Arby’s, the largest CSR contributor to the No Kid Hungry campaign, allow guests to write their name on a pin-up and hang in the restaurant, for added recognition. The creative possibilities for how your restaurant can use the trend of strategic philanthropy to its benefit are endless!

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If you want to jump on board, your restaurant can obviously make a donation to one of the many charities in your community or begin to host fundraising events. However, if you want to make a real long-term impact, you may want to consider officially forming a corporate foundation. When you have your own company foundation, you’re able to have full control of how your restaurant’s donation is used. Not only can your eatery make a real difference, there is much more to be gained when engaging in this type of strategic philanthropy.

Think you’re ready to start a corporate foundation for your restaurant? Don’t let worry make the process overly cumbersome for you. Establishing a new company foundation doesn’t have to take your attention away from running your business, especially when you’re working with BryteBridge Nonprofit Solutions. Let us handle the steps necessary to start your company foundation, so you can stay focused on the business at hand. Our team of experts is skilled and trained in all aspects of nonprofit management, including corporate foundation administration. Contact us at +1 (407) 857 9002 today or visit our website.