Entrepreneur’s new foundation puts the focus on giving to local causes.

When the charity her business was supporting kept emailing to ask who she was, Sarah Townsend knew it was time to make some changes.

Townsend loved the ethos behind the environmental charity 1% for the Planet, which seemed to be a natural fit for The Aromatherapy Company, the home fragrance brand she co-founded 25 years ago.

But to the well-resourced New York organisation, The Aromatherapy Company was just a very small dot in a very big world, says Townsend.

"I think they do a fantastic job but they didn't even know who we were or what we were doing so I just sort of felt that really we could manage the 1 per cent better within our own community." She looked around for a local equivalent, but struggled to find a strong organisation with good infrastructure that wasn't already well supported.

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Then she spoke with the Mental Health Foundation, which at the time couldn't even afford to print business cards. "They have so little extra funding it just seems to me to be a no-brainer and that's how the relationship started."

For two years The Aromatherapy Company has donated a percentage of the proceeds from a special Mother's Day range to the Mental Health Foundation.

Townsend says she was drawn to the foundation's work by the difference it can make in people's lives - particularly the Mindfulness in Schools programme, which teaches children how to manage their mental health at times when they might be feeling blue, worried or stressed.

"I can't tell you whether people buy the products because of that but for me it just feels right and it's a great fit.

"Then I thought this is crazy; we need to actually bring that money back into our community and utilise it in ways that we can really make a big difference, so that's why we've set up this new foundation which is the 1% for Giving." The idea is that 1 per cent of profits from its main therapy range will be put to use locally, with the Mental Health Foundation as the main beneficiary.

Townsend has also gone public with her own experience with mental health issues, having suffered from anxiety and panic attacks, which she now manages through exercise, breathing therapy and cutting back on coffee and alcohol.

She says standing up and talking about her own experience was a big step but she was willing to do it to raise the fund-raising effort's profile.

In addition to the cash funding, Townsend says the company has been able to support the foundation with expertise in marketing, graphic design and printing.

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This is the latest iteration in charitable giving for the company, which has endeavoured to help anyone who came knocking.

Since The Aromatherapy Company began, Townsend has always responded to requests from charities, particularly those associated with children and children's health.

When the Christchurch earthquakes struck, she immediately set up a fund, giving $1 from every home fragrance diffuser sold to help victims.

When she wrote out a cheque for more than $5000, Townsend says it made her realise the power of using products to generate funds for the charity.

"Really there is a lot of good you can do in a community and also it's lovely that people get to have our products - it's a win-win.

"But at some point we had to say look, this is too hard, let's put a percentage around it." With the withdrawal from the 1% for the Planet scheme, The Aromatherapy Company has been able to create its own local version.

"My whole mantra and ethos is: to give back is to receive." Townsend says she has been fortunate with her life, including having a father who has helped her with the business.

"It's just lovely to say thank you very much, life, for giving me what I've got in my life and I'd like to share that with other people."

Making a charitable connection

Focus:

It's impossible to support everything, so work out where you want to direct your efforts. Talk to your staff and customers and find out what matters to them. Having a focus will help you turn away charities that don't fit the criteria and attract those that do.

Seek: Find the causes or charities you want to support - it could be one or several. Again, get your staff involved in helping you pick one that resonates with your business.

Lead: If your chosen charity has an annual "bad shirt day" fund-raiser, then break out the ugly shirt. If the boss is doing it, it shows a solid commitment from the top to the chosen charity. Make it clear your giving programme matters to the business.

Source: Philanthropy New Zealand