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Danny O'Neill wants to connect the people who grow his coffee with the people who drink it.

Danny O'Neill wants to connect the people who grow his coffee with the people who drink it.

Owner of The Roasterie, a $5-million coffee-roasting company in Kansas City, Mo., and respected local philanthropist, O'Neill's charitable efforts moved farther afield three years ago, sparked by visits to two elementary schools. Before leaving on a buying trip to Brazil, O'Neill visited a fourth-grade class in Missouri to discuss entrepreneurship.

"I was blown away by the sophisticated questions the kids asked and the equipment they used, such as an electronic white board," O'Neill recalls. In Brazil, O'Neill toured a school in Minas Gerais and was shocked: "These kids didn't even have access to a telephone, much less a computer," he says.

That prompted O'Neill to finance a satellite dish, high-speed Internet access and 10 computers for the Minas Gerais school — and to find a trainer for computer classes. O'Neill also helped to expand a nearby preschool into a daycare center, enabling more mothers to work and increase family income. This past summer, O'Neill began working with two preschools in Costa Rica to improve their physical facilities, extend hours and initiate hot-lunch programs. "My overall goal is to improve the economic conditions and advance learning in the areas where we do business," O'Neill says.

Yet overseas aid must be thought out carefully, O'Neill cautions: "I don't want to have an imperialistic attitude and come in with a check to do something that only I think should be done. It's important to find out what a community's real needs are — they may be quite different from you thought." O'Neill is also wary of negative consequences borne of good intentions. "I don't want people to think they can just write out a wish list and things will magically appear," he adds. With that in mind, O'Neill has encouraged community involvement. For example, he bought materials for a new fence at one preschool, but local residents provided the sweat equity to build it.

Although O'Neill gives cash overseas — about $14,000 to Brazil and $8,000 to Costa Rica this year — back home in Kansas City, he typically donates product. "For one thing, product promotes us more. You can get lost on a list of donors," he explains. But O'Neill also believes that product can contribute more to an event, noting that the rich smell of fresh roasted coffee wafting through a crowd adds to the color and hoopla of a marathon or walkathon.

O'Neill's primary motive is to help others; however, corporate philanthropy is also good for business, he admits: "It sets The Roasterie apart from other coffee companies. Customers have a lot of choices today, and if they know that a dime on every pound of our coffee is going to help kids in Costa Rica, it gives them one more reason to buy from us."

Some other paybacks:

  • Increased visibility. Being seen at a charity event reinforces relationships with existing customers — and it's brought The Roasterie new customers.
  • Customer feedback. Mingling in a crowd is a great way to glean information about your product, such as adding a new flavor.
  • Recruiting tool. O'Neill has found new employees through charity events.

What can you do through your company to begin giving back? O'Neill's advice:

Pick something you're passionate about. "We love kids and we love education," says O'Neill. He targeted Brazil and Costa Rica because that's where The Roasterie has some of its largest suppliers and the best relationships.

Be discriminating. If you say yes to everyone, you'll exhaust your resources. The Roasterie participates at different levels: Sometimes it may donate coffee and supplies; other times a team of employees will attend the event to brew and serve coffee.

Make philanthropy voluntary with your workers. "We've overdone our participation to the point that we've burned out some employees," O'Neill says. To remedy the situation, he has hired an employee whose primary job is to coordinate The Roasterie's participation at charity events.

"It's a learning process," O'Neill says, noting that his experience with FastTrac members has helped him learn how other entrepreneurs handle corporate philanthropy.

Writer: T.J. Becker

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