The way businesses engage in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is changing.

Take Timberland as an example. In 2015 the outdoor lifestyle brand created 84 percent of its footwear products with at least one material containing recycled, organic, or renewable content. It has planted more than 8 million trees since 2001. To date, Timberland employees have served over one million volunteer-hours in communities around the world.

The bar is being raised for small businesses, too.

In part, this is because the Millennial workforce is demanding it. A study by Intelligence Group found that 64 percent of Millennials say they want to work for a company that’s striving to make the world a better place. As consumers, people are becoming more aware of the practices company’s take – or fail to take.

Further, more businesses are finding that CSR programs help grow their business.

Recently, the Calypso team attended the annual New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility (NHBSR) Spring Conference. Each year, speakers and attendees show how driven they are to better the environment, society, and the workplace.

The presentations this year left the audience with a cohesive message: People are at the center of everything you do. People are your business, your customers, and the driving force behind change.

As keynote speaker and author Andrew Winston said, “Business cannot thrive unless the planet and its people are thriving.”

With all this in mind, it’s startling that more businesses are not adopting CSR programs into their business.

In our experience, while most clients are open to developing a CSR program, others meet it with heavy resistance. Often, this comes from a misunderstanding about how a CSR program can work for their business. But as successes have shown, it’s not as dramatic a risk some may believe. Or they see it as incongruous with their business goals. But this is only true if you fail to account for the wide array of CSR options.

Whatever your specific case is, here’s what must be account for to make your CSR a success:

Align It With Your Business

Not every program will work for you. And you shouldn’t try to affix something to your business that doesn’t feel right. But that’s not an excuse for doing nothing—in fact, inaction could be seen as equal to bad action.

Whatever shape your CSR takes, it needs to be authentic to your business model, its leadership, and its employees.

Consider the now-pulled Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner. This is a great example of what could result from inauthentic social activism. Before the ad aired, neither Pepsi nor Kendall Jenner was associated with the cultural movements portrayed. What resulted was a tone-deaf flop, not a groundbreaking social statement by Pepsi.

Compare Pepsi’s flop to the Ben and Jerry’s Democracy campaign. Chris Miller discussed the planning and execution of this campaign during his NHBSR keynote. The numbers he shared were quite impressive. Not least among them were the thousands of people they helped register to vote, and a 7:1 ROI they saw as a result of their activism.

 

“Combine issue advocacy with marking. And build a better business.
And build a better world.” – Chris Miller

 

You might be saying that Ben and Jerry’s has a history of doing that sort of thing, so of course it went well. And that’s exactly the point. The more dedicated—either through a track record or noticeable support—the less it will seem off-brand, exploitative, and phony.

Timberland, unlike Ben and Jerry’s, does not immediately bring to mind bearded liberals in Vermont. Yet they too have robust CSR and sustainability initiatives.

At this year’s NHBSR, Margaret Morey-Reuner, director of strategic partnerships for Timberland, and Bill Besselman, executive vice president of Thread, spoke about their partnership, which helps Timberland bridge CSR and sustainability initiatives. During their session, Morey-Reuner explained how their partnership with Thread is one of many ways the brand strives to be a responsible community partner. Often, Timberland can help achieve business goals with their CSR and sustainability initiatives.

For instance, say Timberland has a CSR initiative to help farmers in developing countries. They could place more of their efforts on cotton farmers and help the farmers reach a certain yield. Then, Timberland can shift that relationship from philanthropist to business partner, thus achieving one goal of helping farmers, while achieving a second of using only organic cotton.

There are many ways to tie business goals to a CSR initiative. If a company wanted to cut operational costs, it could lower its carbon footprint and in return, save money. If you’re having trouble creating the right teams, invest in your employees’ well-being. Just look at what W. S. Badger Co does. Talk with one of their employees. You’ll quickly learn how dedicated they are to the brand and how proud they are to work there.

Put It Into Action

Having a plan to better society is not the same as being better for society. That much should be obvious. You may have felt it in meetings before. Your team shares awesome ideas to help cut trash consumption or wants to plant a company garden in the open field next to your building. Then come researching solutions, contacting partners, organizing employees, getting board members to fund the project. The stack of action items can demoralize even the most hardened advocate.

To paraphrase Bill Besselman of Thread, there’s no shortage of great ideas. The problem is actually turning an idea into action. Plus, it’s difficult. That’s why you should align your CSR with the values of your business or its employees. It’s much less difficult to do things when they are a business priority.

Whatever you do, don’t be like Volkswagen and other companies that have set lofty and have failed, sometimes disastrously, to follow through. Here are three things to help you implement your successful CSR program:

  • Create your CSR program with a long-term goal in mind. Whatever issue your CSR program hopes to tackle, it likely cannot achieve it in a day. Cut yourself some slack by taking small actions that can build up to a larger, more impactful result.
  • Next, engage your employee base. Poll them to see what issues they care about or how they want to help. As mentioned above, people are motivated and inspired by a company they feel is making the world a better place. Listen to that motivation and put it to good use.
  • Finally, don’t forget to track your progress. A CSR program, like any feature of your business, should measure and report its progress. A successful CSR program sets realistic and measurable goals and prioritizes action items. Whether it’s for internal or external use, you should be tracking all the actions of your CSR programs.

Sharing Is Caring

Once you’ve created a successful CSR initiative, don’t forget to share it with the public. Unfortunately, this is one of the most overlooked aspects of a CSR program. But it could be your business’ biggest success at gaining positive media attention.

Sharing the great things your business does can create lifelong advocates for your brand. It can boost employee morale—who doesn’t want to brag about their great employer that’s making news?

Plus, your influence can lead to more businesses doing right by their employees, their community, and the world.

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