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Program offers tasty way to thank volunteers

Navjot Arora of Chutney Masala Indian Bistro in Irvington with John Higgins of ThankYouForCaring.

When John Higgins walked into Chutney Masala Indian Bistro in Irvington one day with a proposal, restaurant owner Navjot Arora was wary.

“We get people all the time, people trying to hawk something,” Arora said.

But this time, though Higgins was making a pitch, it was one of a different kind.

Higgins is the owner of ThankYouForCaring, a Westchester-based business designed to help nonprofit organizations – and Arora saw the value in participating in the ongoing program that is gaining steam across the county.

ThankYouForCaring was launched in early 2010, with a number of businesses, such as hair salons and hardware stores, offering savings incentives to local volunteers.

The company’s goal, Higgins said, is to improve the relationship between the businesses and the nonprofits, offering a program that helps both.

This past summer, Higgins stepped it up, creating a restaurant program.

In brief, anyone who volunteers – whether it’s helping out with a PTA bake sale, an animal-rescue organization’s walk-a-thon or even being a member of a local volunteer fire department – is entitled to a card.

The volunteer can receive the card either directly from the organization they are working with, or by providing proof to the Volunteer Center of United Way, a featured partner along with Phelps Memorial Hospital Center in Tarrytown.

In addition to receiving discounts at select shops and service establishments, volunteers can visit any of the nearly 40 participating restaurants on a Wednesday evening, Volunteer Appreciation Night, and receive 20 percent off their food check.

Higgins, a Mount Vernon resident whose varied background includes owning a masonry company, was out on disability when he came up with the program idea. He was volunteering at a local animal shelter when he thought about how hard smaller nonprofits have it when it came to fund-raising and attracting volunteers.

He began to organize some fundraisers, which led to ThankYouForCaring.

“This kind of became a spinoff of that,” he said.

Soon after, Higgins began to approach small businesses to explain the program and see if they might offer discounts to those who do volunteer work. With many already giving discounts to senior citizens on certain days, this seemed like a compatible program.

“They said ‘Why not?’ and a little light went off,” Higgins said.

Nonprofits, Higgins added, now have an inventive way to thank their loyal volunteers and donors, while restaurants can both raise their profile and fill seats on a slow evening.

“It’s (to) their advantage,” Higgins said, noting that giving up 20 percent of a check is a way to both fill seats and spread good will.

Higgins admits the program is still catching on, though he is already working with some 200 nonprofit agencies.

“Between something new and the recession, it takes time,” though he sees it continuing to grow as restaurants traditionally are known to help out their neighbors.

“Restaurants are always giving (gift) cards, always hosting fundraisers,” he said.

For the nonprofit, Higgins said, it is almost a “no-brainer.”

“I don’t believe it’s an incentive to volunteer, but they’re always looking for ways to thank their volunteers,” Higgins said. “You donate money to a nonprofit, (and) you really don’t think of any of that money going to something to thank the volunteers.”

Higgins said the program also works on other levels. He suggests those businesses who are giving the discounts engage the cardholders when they use them. He said volunteers, for the most part, are very passionate about their causes. The business owner might learn all about a local project or a special cause.

“Then it’s not just a cash transaction,” Higgins said. “To be corny, I do think it’s building community.”

Those using the card don’t have to register it, and no personal information is taken, an attractive feature for many.

Down the line, Higgins plans to expand into the corporate segment, getting into company newsletters and working with even more restaurants.

“It’s really a gift,” Higgins said, “because otherwise, let’s face it, it’s just marketing through a nonprofit.”

Arora, who already works with some local nonprofits and social-service agencies such as Abbott House near Chutney Masala, saw the program as another way to reach out to the community – and potential new customers.

“Everybody is more value-conscious, and we understand that, as a restaurant operator,” Arora said.

While he might host two or three parties of diners using the card on any given Wednesday, Arora said, he looks forward to a time when it will be more recognized.

“It is still in the growing stage,” he said, though he is already seeing repeat customers from the program.

“I think it’s not as much of a ripple effect as it can be,” Arora said.

Is the $500 investment that a restaurant makes each year to participate worth it?

“I think it will be,” Arora says, noting it also helps him fill tables on an otherwise quiet night.

And Arora said that promoting the program, which recognizes volunteers, can only be a positive.

“They feel rewarded in a small way, which is the least we can do.”

And Higgins, who sees expansion in the corporate, entertainment and sporting segments, says he sees big things for his program.

“I want to be around when the recession is over and business is booming again,” he said.

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