Marion boutique offers a ‘mode’ for giving back

Danielle Rings, owner of MODE in Marion and the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ 2019 “Outstanding Small Philanthropic Organization,” has some advice for other small businesses looking to give back: Start small, lead with your heart and understand that philanthropy can also drive business traffic. PHOTO BEN HIGH


By Katharine Carlon

With fewer resources than their corporate brethren, it’s often daunting for small businesses to devote time, money and effort to philanthropic partnerships.

One Marion boutique owner says there’s a good reason for doing it anyway: enlightened self-interest.

“To small businesses who think it’s too expensive to donate to a silent auction or have an event, know that you get much more back,” said Danielle Rings, owner of MODE women’s boutique and this year’s “Outstanding Small Philanthropic Organization,” awarded Nov. 12 by the Eastern Iowa chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals at a National Philanthropy Day luncheon.

“[Philanthropy] feeds your business. People support you,” she continued. “So why not give a little back? Take a look around, find something that speaks to you, start off small and see where it goes.”

Ms. Rings, who opened MODE in the Collins Road Square shopping center in 2015, came to her second act as a small businesswoman after a long history of fundraising and volunteerism, including serving as director of annual giving and assistant vice president for Mount Mercy University’s fundraising team. She has also served on several nonprofit boards, including Waypoint, Women United at United Way of East Central Iowa, the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and the Junior League of Cedar Rapids.

That’s why it came naturally to her to continue her philanthropic efforts at MODE, which has become known for donating gift cards and other items to a panoply of silent auction events, hosting events on behalf of area nonprofits and holding regular “Shop for a Cause” fundraisers – private shopping events where a percentage of sales are donated to a charitable cause.

“It just made sense and it’s really pretty easy,” Ms. Rings said. “I think that’s what people miss sometimes. Say you donate a $25 gift card as a silent auction item. When somebody comes in to use it, they usually also spend money. If you do it right, it’s a way to drive traffic back to your store. It’s not completely altruistic, but everybody wins.”

Data compiled by SCORE earlier this year suggests Ms. Rings is spot on in her assessment that doing good is good for business. SCORE’s January 2019 report indicates that 85% of consumers have a more positive image of a company who gives to charity and 90% want to know how companies are supporting charitable causes.

It’s a message that is getting through to many. According to SCORE, three-quarters of small businesses donated an average of 6% of their profits to charitable organizations in 2018. Another recent small business philanthropy study, this one by TD Bank, found that small businesses often give back by donating goods (35%), directly giving money (29%), volunteering (29%) or providing space for community events (12%).

“Pick something that means something to you, something that resonates with you, and start that way,” Ms. Rings said. “If you do taxes, volunteer to do the books at the Catherine McCauley Center. Whatever kind of business you have, there is a ton of need and nonprofits looking for people who need all sorts of skills.”

In addition to offering up auction items and its Shop for a Cause program, Ms. Rings has used her fashion-focused business to collect and donate old jeans to Foundation 2 Crisis Center, participate in fundraising fashion shows, collect an SUV full of diapers and host events for the Junior League’s “Bridging the G.A.P.” That program provides 18-year-olds aging out of foster care with a suitcase full of items necessary to live independently such as bedding, pots and pans, and cleaning supplies.

“I buy wine, cheese and crackers, and ask people to shop, and I donate 20 percent of proceeds to the cause,” she said. “It’s maybe $50 in wine and food, but it’s people in my door – people who might not have been here before. … I consider it advertising. It’s kind of a no-brainer.”

Ms. Rings said some of her boutique owning peers are reluctant to lend out clothing for fashion shows and other events because they worry about allowing merchandise out the door at no charge. Others believe their pockets aren’t deep enough to participate.

“What holds people back? Money. It’s going to cost money,” she said. “But in the long run, you get that investment back three or four times over. Sometimes you just have to say yes.”

Leah Rodenberg, an account program manager at the Alliant Energy Foundation, which nominated Ms. Rings for this year’s philanthropy award, called her “one of the brightest, most thoughtful and giving women I know,” and praised her ability to give her all to every effort “from raising money to getting people to attend an event and brainstorming new fun ideas.”

Ms. Rings, who advised others to “take a leap of faith and do things you don’t expect to get recognition for,” is already working on her next brainchild: an interview closet for low-income women to find the perfect outfit for landing a job.

“All I need is the stuff and the space, and that should be easy thing to do,” she said.  “It’s my new passion, my next thing for 2020, because how hard can it be?” CBJ