The image is burned in the back of Jess Ostroff’s brain: youngsters busting open a fire hydrant in Baltimore, playing in puddles, trying to find relief on a scorching summer day.
At the time, Ostroff was only a teenager. She had helped with food drives and volunteered with a youth group before, but an up-close look at the difference she made on this trip with Habitat for Humanity gave her a new perspective.
“To see how a house changed their lives, it’s really impactful,” she said. “And for me as somebody who has … never had to experience that, I was like, ‘Why shouldn’t I help?’”
Ostroff is still finding ways to give back — including some creative thinking with her business.
As the “Director of Calm” at Don’t Panic Management, Ostroff has made giving one of the company’s core values. She donates about 5 percent of the company’s profits directly to charities. Clients also have the option to choose which charities to support and match the donation.
At first, some clients had questions. Others didn’t say anything. But most were thrilled to choose their favorite charity.
“When I let them know, it was like, ‘You don’t have to do anything,’” she said. “It wasn’t like we were asking for anything. It was just kind of like, ‘We want you to know this is important to us and this is what we’re doing.’”
Most new clients are well versed in Don’t Panic Management’s culture of giving, so Ostroff no longer mentions her company’s charitable work. She also has optimized her donation schedule. Instead of giving monthly contributions, Ostroff sets aside about 5 percent of her annual profits for bulk donations. Some of her favorite charities include She’s the First and Habitat for Humanity — and clients still have the option to pick where the money goes.
“They know what our values are, and we share those values. But it’s not something that we require,” she said. “If somebody were to say, ‘We don’t want that money to go to this place,’ then we wouldn’t do it. But, in general, they know that this is something that’s a value to me but also a value to the business, and we just take care of it on our end and they don’t even need to worry about.”
Ostroff encourages other business owners to spend time or money — or both — on those who could use help. She understands that’s not always easy; her business is still young, and every penny counts.
Ostroff has three full-time employees and 10 contractors around the country working for her full-service virtual agency, which manages schedules, plans travel, does market research, writes blog posts, and does just about anything else to relieve the day-to-day stress for clients. She formed Don’t Panic Management in 2011 and now has between 30 and 40 clients, most of whom are on retainer.
Before using Gusto, Ostroff said she was going through an accountant “meltdown.” She loves how Gusto eliminates paperwork, makes payments automatically, and always has someone available to answer questions. She also appreciates the user-friendly notifications when a task is completed.
“It’s the kind of service I try to provide to my customers,” she said.
Not stressing about payroll has given her more time to focus on her business — and help others. As Don’t Panic Management has grown, volunteer time has become more limited. Ostroff has come to realize that even if she can’t volunteer, she can still give money. She believes some business owners get too fixated on not being able to do enough, so they just don’t do anything.
“I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. Anything you can do, even if it’s small, you should do it,” she said.
While Ostroff leads the charitable efforts at her company, she knows helping can go beyond the executive level. She wants to continue her giving ways as she continues to build her business. Creating the right culture starts with hiring, so Ostroff tries to get to know candidates and learn about their values. What she has found is that more people want to work at a place where culture and values are prioritized.
“We all have that mindset of wanting to give back and wanting to make a difference. I think it’s just a trait that us millennials have,” she said. “And so there’s kind of a change in the ways of management where that is becoming more and more important, because what is all of this for if it’s not for something bigger than ourselves?”