What happens when you get people talking about your restaurant? Free advertising. The best promotional tool has always been word-of-mouth — so what can your company do to stimulate some conversations? Getting involved in your community is a great way to set your organization apart from other restaurants and make a positive impact on your immediate environment. This will also boost the impression of your restaurant and show a dedication to your community.

Community service, donations and other acts of charity are all good public relations strategies… and they should be. It’s an opportunity to showcase your products (get them to try what your new pastry chef can do), show your commitment to your community (restaurants have always been cornerstones to the neighborhoods they anchor), and increase name recognition. But when it’s insincere — when it’s a gimmick, instead of a giveback, it’s no longer a gift. It’s an insult. And you can believe it: everyone can tell the difference. When you give just for the exposure, you’ll likely wind up hurting your reputation.

To avoid falling into the “PR first, people second” mindset, consider these tips when it comes to community service:

Give it away. If, for instance, you agree to support Habitat for Humanity, give the volunteers lunch, don’t just discount it. Then, in their boxes, include coupons for return visits.

Support your customers’ causes. Instead of a drawing that provides lunch for the office, ask winners to select a non-profit group. Delivering to a shelter or nursing home can bring community service to those who really need it, and all of those places have volunteers and employees who will remember your efforts.

Donations as incentives. When you work with young people, you realize how passionate they can be. When creating incentives for your staff, consider making a donation in the winner’s name to the charity of his or her choice. It might become the best incentive you’ve ever created.

Get your employees excited about giving back. Keep them informed about the events you’re getting involved with, and have them keep an eye out for more community service opportunities.

However you decide to make an impact on the community, keep in mind that your actions should benefit the community first, and your business second. When you give sincerely, you’re guaranteed to increase your exposure in a positive way.