Give Something Back Plans to Give Even More

February 14, 2011

Holding a black Pomeranian named Tommy, Sherri Franklin stood at the front of a conference room and talked about her nonprofit, Muttville, which finds homes for senior dogs.

The presentation was at an Oakland office-supply company that donates most of its profits to local charities. Every month, a grant recipient such as Muttville makes a presentation to the sales, marketing and customer service staff to help them feel connected with the mission of their company, Give Something Back.

The assembled two dozen staffers piped up with questions about how Franklin runs Muttville, how many dogs have been helped, how she screens potential homes. Many paused to pet two other dogs wandering the room - Ethel, a yellow Lab, and Sharo, a dachshund mix.

Give Something Back is celebrating 20 years in business by seeking to triple its size within five years (from $28 million in sales to $100 million) and expand into new categories such as break-room supplies (coffee and snacks), managed print services (toner, paper, repairs and networking), office furniture and janitorial and sanitation products.

In most respects, Give Something Back, which says it is the largest privately owned office supply firm on the West Coast, is a regular company. It competes on price and customer service; it tries to generate healthy sales and profits; it offers competitive salaries and benefits (although its two owners commit to making less than three-quarters of the industry average).

But its underlying premise sets it apart.

Inspired by the example of Newman's Own food products, Mike Hannigan and Sean Marx started Give Something Back in Hannigan's living room in 1991 to "use the marketplace to create wealth on behalf of the community," as Hannigan put it.

"I loved the idea of being able to combine what I do for work with improving the quality of life in the world I live in," said Marx.

Donations grow
The pair's complementary skills have helped them sustain a two-decade relationship as co-owners and co-leaders. Hannigan, 61, a motorcyclist in his spare time, is the company's president with an entrepreneurial spirit and creative approaches to problem solving. Marx, 45, a devotee of Bikram yoga, is the CEO (his business card spells it out as "chief eternal optimist") and identifies his strengths as leadership, sales and customer interaction.

Since inception, Give Something Back has donated more than $5 million to a diverse array of nonprofits. Last year, for the first time, its annual donations topped $500,000.

A magazine stand in the lobby holds flyers from recipients such as St. Anthony Foundation, Girls Inc., Bay Nature, Blind Babies Foundation, Stand Against Domestic Violence, Rebuilding Together Oakland and Guide Dogs for the Blind.

It has inspired imitators such as Ethos Water (now owned by Starbucks), which donates millions of dollars annually to help children around the world get access to clean water.

It helped pioneer the concept of B (for beneficial) corporations, companies that incorporate social or environmental missions into their charters. About 371 companies nationwide have signed up as B corporations.

It has 88 employees, including 62 at the company-owned headquarters near the Oakland airport, the others in satellite offices in San Diego, Sacramento, Oregon and Washington.

No premium prices
For all its success, Give Something Back still struggles with misconceptions. Some of its own customers mistakenly think they're paying a premium to support its charity efforts.

But most customers realize that's not the case.

"Their pricing and customer service are great and very competitive," said Anthony McDaniel, office manager for Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, a law firm with 125 employees in San Francisco that has purchased its supplies from Give Something Back for about a dozen years. Still, he appreciates the company's mission. "We are a class-action law firm, so we are for the people. We partner with them because they give back to the community; they are community-oriented," he said.

Unlike the Big Three of office supply - Staples, OfficeMax and Office Depot - Give Something Back has no retail stores. Selling exclusively business-to-business allows it to streamline operating costs.

Opposite of TV show
Give Something Back is the polar opposite of the nation's best-known office-supply firm, the fictional Dunder Mifflin on NBC's "The Office," which is populated by mercenary salespeople and dysfunctional managers.

Still, Marx said, "What we have in common is having fun and not taking things too seriously." That's why he's hoping to snag an "Office" cast member - hopefully Rainn Wilson who plays Dwight Schrute - to appear at one of the company's anniversary events.