Welcome to the Thought and Action podcast with Erik Flegal. Today we’re joined by Christine England to discuss virtual philanthropy. Christine runs Lowcountry Eat Out! (LEO), a Facebook group out to save restaurants.
During the pandemic, LEO compiled information on who was doing takeout and delivery, anybody that had new menus, and who changed their menus or changed their style of service. The group collected this information for the public so people would have a one-stop place to find information instead of hunting it down through Google and individual pages.
Virtual Philanthropy During COVID-19
Lowcountry Eat Out! started when the pandemic hit and restaurants were closing. Christine’s husband is a chef and they made the decision to help other restaurateurs.
She started by making her own list and scheduling restaurants for dinners, but she found that no one had all of the relevant information. And as she compiled the information, she started sharing it with others who wanted to know the same things. That led to a Facebook group, and more sharing, and it went from there.
With the number of restaurants in the Charleston area, Christine couldn’t keep up with the changes fast enough. So she opened the group up and it took on a life of its own.
The group grew to 20,000 in seven weeks and is currently at 45,000. LEO is meant to be positive and doesn’t allow reviews. The goal is to save restaurants and to talk about the places the group loves and give attention to those places.
Creating a Supportive Community
During COVID, people were passionate about helping out the restaurant industry and other areas that were really struggling. Another example is an organization in Rhode Island called Food Fight. They’re huge proponents of supporting restaurants and they’re doing some cool stuff. Rhode Island under strict protocols, but they’ve done a good job, especially with virtual events.
The groups shared a goal, which was to spread restaurants’ information far and wide. But people also started to become friends with each other. People started to talk to each other. They started to go out to eat and dine together. Some used the group to make friends and set up group meals.
People want to connect more than anything. And that led to Christine buying the domain for Lowcountry Eat Out! Her goal was to make comprehensive lists and explain the differences.
Users expect the information to be right. That is essential. And democratizing the information made it easier for the community to grow.
It’s not always easy because 45,000 people don’t all have the same taste buds or the same budget. Some people’s idea of a good meal is McDonald’s, and some people will only eat at PR-driven restaurants that are featured in magazines, but it’s all okay.
Initially, the end goal of Lowcountry Eat Out! was to shut it down. But after Hannah Raskin’s article on the group, Christine couldn’t shut it down. Recently, she added a social media management arm of the company called LEO to continue helping restaurants.
Most people don’t know that the national average for annual restaurant profits is just three to five percent. Some places do 15-20 percent, but others just one or two.
Learning Lessons from the Pandemic
Also, some restaurants are going back to some of their bad pre-COVID habits. They’re overpaying for things and not looking at the bigger picture.
For example, you don’t necessarily need a PR company if your goal is awareness in your community, because social media does that. You need a social media manager, not PR people. And not all social media experts are great at PR. This is more for restaurants to use their voices. LEO uses their stories and connects to them as humans.
By connecting the restaurants to the community, LEO humanizes them and reduces the detachment that COVID created.
Second, LEO is teaching consumers what’s actually happening behind that kitchen wall, in the kitchen, in the office. Consumers aren’t seeing gas surcharges, or lobster prices going up 30%. Produce and protein prices are rising, and supply is down.
LEO has spent the last two months trying to educate consumers in the hopes of creating empathy, which is a big part of virtual philanthropy. Because the biggest issues are happening behind that wall. You might overtip a server, for example, but that doesn’t help the restaurant or the back of the house. Without education and empathy, the community wouldn’t be possible.
Extending Virtual Philanthropy Across Industries
In terms of execution, someone could do this with anything they’re passionate about. If somebody was passionate about dogs, for example, or nature, there’s a process here that works to grow awareness and have a meaningful, positive impact.
That said, the first lesson that Christine learned along the way — which led to the success of Lowcountry Eat Out! — was not to do it for the fame or the glory.
For months, Christine was working on the group eight to 12 hours a day, talking to restaurants, scheduling meetings, setting up posts, and preparing for holidays. Lots of work, but not a lot of glory.
You have to be ready to be your own cheerleader because you don’t always see the immediate impact. But then you hear from the restaurant owners. You hear about a bad restaurant experience that turned into a good one because the diner spoke to the servers and channeled that empathy.
Those moments are great, but they’re very sporadic. Sometimes virtual philanthropy is really hard. You have to dig deep and remind yourself that you’re doing good in the community. This is working. And that might be the hardest part for some people with things like Facebook groups.
Find Your Passion First
Also, choose something you’re passionate about. So many people throw around words like authentic or passionate. If you’re doing it because you want to be close to chefs or be a foodie, for example, that could come off as desperate. But if you can have an informed conversation, if something lands in your lap and you find yourself sucked in, those are the things you want to be involved in. Those are the things that you want to put the time into supporting because those are the things that matter.
In addition to the education, the empathy, and the community, it helps to have some expertise. But even that can come from the passion and time you put in. A group can welcome someone new to the city and educate them just as easily as someone that’s lived here all their life.
For people interested in virtual philanthropy work, you just have to have the conversation. You have to just reach out and say I’m really interested in this. I want to learn more. How do you do this?
It’s okay for you not to know everything. Christine doesn’t know everything about restaurants, but she’s having those conversations consistently. And if she thinks she’s missing something or doesn’t understand something clearly, she has no problems calling someone to find out.
And by asking those questions, she’s built out a Rolodex that connects the community even more effectively.