What a Bargain

How one entrepreneur has mastered the investment in corporate social responsibility

Written by Rick Spence

A few years ago, a Vancouver-based organization called Canadian Business for Social Responsibility couldn’t get arrested on the streets of Toronto. Now its annual summit conference attracts a capacity crowd at the Fairmont Royal York and such illustrious guests as Charles, Prince of Wales.

It seems everyone is jumping on the corporate social responsibility bandwagon. One of the recent conference’s closing speakers was the uncrowned Prince of Papineau, Justin Trudeau, who announced, “It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how famous you are. We need to know that we are relevant, that the world will be a better place because we passed through it.” Seems there’s no limit to the do-gooders who expect business owners to pay to fix other people’s problems.

It was a very different group of do-gooders who turned me on to CSR: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies. Back when I was keeping the chair warm for the guy who now runs this magazine, we polled PROFIT 100 leaders about CSR. We didn’t think most would know what it was. To our surprise, they told us that “giving back” to their communities was essential, and they did it every day. From granting employees days off for charitable work to sponsoring kids’ camps, these growth leaders believed their firms must support the communities that nourished them.

Personally, I believe obligation comes not from entrepreneurs’ financial success but from the fact that they often rank among the most capable people in their community. Case in point: Jody Steinhauer of Toronto-based The Bargains Group Ltd., whose scrounging skills have earned her the nickname “Bargain Jody” — and the gratitude of charities across Canada.

Bargains Group has two main activities: sourcing discounted clothing for resale to retailers and selling discount-priced corporate promotional products. Steinhauer was making minor contributions to local charities when a staffer from Toronto shelter Covenant House told her the charity needed new clothes for youth on the street. When Steinhauer learned that Covenant House was buying these clothes at retail, she saw how much she could help. Using her connections, she shook down suppliers to get the clothes for free — or at such rock-bottom prices that it left the charity more money to run its programs.

Since then, Bargains Group has sourced sleeping bags and survival kits for street people, as well as school supplies, toys for the Salvation Army and emergency supplies for people evacuated in the tainted-water disaster in Walkerton, Ont. Today, Bargains Group has one full-time employee dealing with charitable projects and requests pouring in from across Canada. (One thing about CSR: once you start giving, it’s hard to stop.)

As an investment, being socially responsible pays good dividends. Bargains Group’s generosity has become a cornerstone of the firm’s culture, helping inspire and motivate its best workers even as it attracts new ones. (The company now has a waiting list of qualified job candidates.) It’s also a great filtering tool: if any prospective employees fail to be stirred and excited after five minutes in the meeting room wallpapered with thank-you letters, Steinhauer knows they’re not right for her firm.

Other benefits: the media love good-news stories, so Bargains Group gets great PR for its efforts. And, after a typical day of being squeezed by suppliers and treated “like crap” by buyers, says Steinhauer, it’s deeply rewarding to have charitable clients thank her again and again for saving people’s lives.

Since it’s better to give than to receive, Steinhauer offers these CSR tips to other entrepreneurs:

Don’t work alone

Steinhauer drags in her entire network on projects, and rounds up support from big companies and city hall. She also organizes press conferences to make public appeals for donations, and says she’s amazed at the support that snowballs if you just get things started.

Involve your whole staff

Bargains Group encourages suggestions from all 30 staff for new charitable projects, and lets the entire team decide which to pursue. To succeed, Steinhauer needs their full engagement and commitment.

Know your limits

It’s easy to take on too much. If you can’t do a good job for someone, turn it down, warns Steinhauer: “Whether it’s for profit or not, your brand is at risk.”

Profits first

Much as she loves giving back, Steinhauer knows her firm’s health takes priority. She sets “tight goals” for her staff for what they have to produce by when. This way, helping others flows out of business success, and doesn’t impede it.

Blow your own horn

Let all your contacts know what you’re doing. When clients have a choice, they’re delighted to do business with a firm that reaches out to help others. “Everyone wants to be socially responsible,” says Steinhauer, “even if it’s just by being associated with companies that are.”?

This growing ecosystem of social responsibility is welcome, and we must all step up. But there’s a rising sense of legal obligation around social responsibility that I abhor. Fortunately, entrepreneurs have a natural inclination to give back, and the vision and charisma to include their teams in the process. Charity may begin at home, but it gets more done at the office.

Originally appeared on