Build Your Business:


How Community Involvement Boosts Decorated-Apparel Business Success

Engaging with your community builds genuine connections, increases loyalty and provides valuable insights into your target markets

By Deborah Sexton, Contributing Writer


Art by artbesouro – stock.adobe.com

April 8, 2024

For anyone trying to build their decorated-apparel business, community involvement is a great way to have a positive impact on your neighborhood and build strong relationships with potential customers and partners. It also creates a sense of fulfillment and that warm feeling that comes from helping others.

It must be viewed as a long-term investment, and one that typically is not going to result in an immediate increase in sales. For it to be successful, it requires patience, consistency and a commitment to the greater good.

Jen Badger, ShineOn Designs, Jefferson, Iowa, built her entire business and even named her company on the mission statement of “always use the work of our hands to make our customers’ inner lights shine.” Commenting on her shop’s long-time involvement in her community she says, “It’s who I am at my core, so it isn’t a stretch for me.”

In a world where everyone is striving for connection, it’s important to get yourself out of your shop and into your community. You never know which hand you shake or which person you connect with who will bring you the next big project.


Apart from running their respective businesses, business owners have a platform that can be employed in small and large ways for good. This platform gives the business a voice that can be used for those who do not have one. With that type of platform comes a heavy responsibility.

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Badger and her team embraced the holidays as a great way to bridge the gap between business and community. Photo courtesy of ShineOn Designs

Throughout her 10-plus years in business, Badger has learned that you never know the impact your platform is going to have. “You don’t always know exactly what the payoff is. If I’m talking to a new customer who came in as a result of our community involvement, I have no way of knowing that unless they tell me. And the person standing in front of me may have been referred by someone I had contact with. There is a ripple effect, and the one thing I know is there’s always a payoff.”

“There are benefits to doing it,” agrees Marshall Atkinson, Atkinson Consulting, Tempe, Arizona. “First off, this is how you meet people. It’s also good to understand what’s going on. By being involved in a community, you learn about things that are happening and discover ways you can contribute.

“It may sound cliche, but the more you give, the more you get. If you are active in a local cause, that affinity helps you build a better relationship with customers because they see you as an empathic, caring company.”

Atkinson says that it’s not wise to communicate that all you or your business cares about is the community’s money. People typically want to be seen as people and not as a relationship that is based solely on transactions. A great principle to base a business on is “the most human company wins.”

“I look at it as the more you put into your community, the more you get out of it,” says Tom Rauen, president, 1-800-TSHIRTS.com, Dubuque, Iowa. “You want to build your network and align with others who are also giving back. People who are passionate about the same things.”

“That’s going to create something stronger than a one-off customer who doesn’t know who you are behind the business. It’s helping the people who are supporting your customers. We try to do everything we can to be active and support our community. We know it’s going to help it flourish and make it a better place to live and do things,” he concludes.

As a business owner, you either get it or you don’t.

Badger notes that it’s important to recognize the ways these efforts can benefit your business; however, don’t let that be the only reason you do it. Sometimes it’s okay if it’s just for the sake of doing good and spreading love and light. The results can not only be substantial but can be immeasurable as well.

For example, Badger recalls sitting in a meeting of her small-business group discussing the annual Halloween “Spook the Loop” event where employees dress up in costumes and hand out candy. A member had vocalized their concerns with spending $120 on candy and never getting anything out of it. Badger immediately responded with “Well, we love to dress up around here, and sometimes you do something for the good of your community, not because it’s going to reap some reward.”

“My wife hates me for this, because I want to support the community all the time,” says Rauen. “I know how much work, effort and passion goes into putting on a gathering, whether it’s fundraising, a music festival, or a ‘Taste Of’ type food event.”

Rauen notes that if nobody shows up, organizers are not going to put the event together again. If a community doesn’t have people showing support for things, then there’s nothing else to do. The more events there are, the more that support spins around, highlighting the difference between an active, viable community vs. an inactive one. The more your business puts into supporting these activities, the more the community will be willing to show up.

Who is Your Community for Your Decorated-Apparel Business?

Identifying your community and the people whom it is made up by is key to further garnering that support that has been discussed up to this point.

“Getting involved in your community is the mark of a good neighbor,” notes Atkinson, “but a lot of people think ‘Well, that’s the people in my neighborhood.’ I think you have to paint it with a broader brush.”

“For me, my community is anyone in the decorated apparel industry. It’s people who belong to the same associations. I consider participants of Shirt Lab to be a part of my community,” he observes. “You need to start by defining who your community is by looking at who and what matters to you.”

As a consultant, Atkinson became aware of a shop where 60 percent of the workforce is on the autism spectrum. He provides guidance and assistance as a coach when he can. This is just one example of community involvement.

“We all have a community we live in,” agrees Rauen. “And then there’s micro-communities within that. Maybe you have a religious one, a fitness one, and one surrounding whatever activities your kids are involved in.”

“There are always community things happening that you’re passionate about. But it goes beyond that. Sometimes it’s what your friends or family enjoy doing. I am an avid trail runner and I have friends who have no clue about trail running, but they will show up to cheer me on, and that brings them into my community.”

Getting Started Integrating Your Decorated-Apparel Business

More often than not, community involvement happens organically. You learn about something going on you are interested in, or someone asks for help. But if this is not the case in your circumstance, Atkinson makes a simple suggestion: Ask questions.

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Rauen and his team put every ounce of passion into their community. Photo courtesy of 1-800-T-shirts.com

“One of the things I did back when I was running a shop is I noticed that between 40 and 50 percent of the workforce was female. I asked them, ‘What matters to you?’ And the resounding response was breast cancer awareness. What I discovered was that a good chunk of the work staff either had cancer or was recovering or knew a family member or a neighbor who had it.

Atkinson’s company then became involved by raising money through American Cancer Society walks and other activities. This wasn’t an order, but a communal decision made by the staff as a whole. Atkinson and his staff committed to numerous activities all throughout the year. “It’s important to find out what your employees care about. That helps your business by keeping them happy,” Atkinson says.

When choosing what to participate in, Badger looks at her mission statement and aligns her activities with the message she wants to send out into the world about who she and her company are and what their collective “why” is. In many ways, Badger and her team share their own light through involvement in and out of the shop to further bring light to their community.

“As a for-profit business, in the back of my mind I am thinking that these efforts may bring in new customers,” she says. “I also know that it helps with the company reputation and trust. But that’s not the main motivation. Often, it’s just doing good for the sake of doing good. For the love of my community. Also, we benefit! We sometimes get so caught up in our day-to-day that we need that heartwarming feeling that volunteering brings.”

Striking the Right Balance with Community Involvement

A challenge that goes hand-in-hand with community involvement is picking and choosing what you do, because as your reputation grows, you will get asked to contribute to more than time and resources allow.

“You can over-commit,” admits Badger. “It’s easier to say yes than to say no to requests. We must be choosy with the ways we spend our downtime. Overcommitting can add stress and result in a negative outcome to your well-being. Finding balance is key.

She has a list of questions she asks herself before pledging a new commitment:

  1. Do I believe in this cause?
  2. Does this align with my personal and company missions?
  3. How am I feeling about my free time right now?
  4. Will the time commitment cause more stress?
  5. Is there another time that would be better?
  6. Is this the best use of my platform?

Badger also advises that it is okay to say no or “not at this time” and not feel the need to explain your answer. Overextending yourself or your business helps no one in the end. You must respect yourself and your own boundaries. There will always be other opportunities in the future.

Atkinson agrees. “When an opportunity arises, I recommend asking these questions: Do you have the time? Do you have the money? Is it something you care about? You need to set some guidelines for how you’re going to handle things. T-shirt shops are notorious for getting hit up for every cause, and they all want free shirts. So having a policy is a defense for handling requests.”

Another good strategy, Atkinson suggests, is to have an application and review process ready when asked to participate in these types of opportunities. Ask the canvasser to fill out the application and let them know you review them on an annual basis in order to decide which projects you and your business are willing to be a part of for the year. Also, let them know about the list of projects you are already committed to so they can proceed accordingly.

Evaluating the Costs & Benefits

Again, there is a fine line you often have to walk when it comes to community involvement. On one hand, it is necessary for business growth and success; on the other, stretching yourself too thin can be detrimental to nurturing your business needs.

“As anyone who runs a small business knows, you are always strapped for personal time,” says Badger. “Sometimes it is hard to get motivated to do something community but work related. I am here at least six days a week, so to be asked to attend something on a Saturday night, which is one of my few free moments, I sometimes feel like I do not want to give up that free time.

“But I have found that the experience is always better than I think it will be, and it always pays off. There’s always a lot of networking that happens and while you might not immediately see the financial or tangible benefits, you always feel good about what you are doing. I believe our community involvement is what sets us apart. Every time you choose to be supportive, you are building a reputation for your business.”

Deborah Sexton is a former editor of Impressions Magazine and now owns her own company, Saracen Communications, doing digital media marketing, copywriting and public relations work for companies in the decorated apparel industry. You can reach her at dsexton@sbcglobal.net.