Businesses of all sizes and across industries spend billions of dollars a year on corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. CSR means choosing to put people and the planet first by operating in a way that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. It can take many different forms — from eco-friendly office practices to charitable giving to volunteering — and vary widely from company to company, but it’s a critical part of succeeding in the current economy.
Three in four of today’s consumers claim they’re more likely to purchase from brands or do business with companies that are socially responsible. This is particularly true among millennials, both when choosing which brands to buy from and which companies to work for. According to Horizon Media’s Finger on the Pulse survey, “81 percent of Millennials expect companies to make a public commitment to good corporate citizenship.” CSR is no longer a “nice-to-have” — it’s a “must-have.”
CSR represents a tremendous opportunity for businesses to build trust, bolster their reputation, and give back to the community. When creating and/or ramping up a CSR strategy, there are three pillars to consider: clients, people, and community.
Implementing CSR initiatives can give a competitive advantage to brands that are highly competitive on price, quality, and convenience. Embracing socially responsible policies helps a company burnish its image and cultivate positive brand recognition by demonstrating that it is compassionate and trustworthy. These values go a long way towards attracting and retaining clients. Clients and consumers (depending on the business model) want to be associated with businesses that are doing good and have a good reputation. By building client loyalty, CSR helps companies achieve increased profitability and long-term financial success.
A marketing and advertising agency can practice CSR by working with nonprofit clients, as well as for-profit businesses. A compelling campaign for a children’s hospital or a conservation non-profit telegraphs to other clients that the agency is committed to giving back, and clients will want to be associated with that goodwill. Charitable giving is another way businesses can use CSR to strengthen their client relationships. During the holiday season, businesses can donate to charitable organizations on behalf of their clients, which has the dual benefit of supporting meaningful causes and showing clients your business cares.
Just as CSR cultivates goodwill and loyalty from clients, it too can have the same effect internally. Making CSR a priority creates a positive work environment that inspires and unites employees. It supports recruitment, retention and employee satisfaction. Good CSR tends to attract employees who are eager to make a difference in the world, which is mostly millennials, and can help attract top-tier talent who are looking for jobs that have meaning and impact, not just a generous salary.
Social responsibility empowers employees to leverage corporate resources to do good and those collective employee efforts can achieve substantial results. This, in turn, increases workplace morale and boosts productivity. Having a sense of pride in the company they work for creates engaged workers who are happy in their jobs and committed to their employers. Put simply, they are more likely to stick around.
CSR has to start “at home.” A key but sometimes overlooked aspect of CSR is how a company treats and supports its own employees. A company that makes large donations to charitable organizations but doesn’t pay its own workers a fair wage or provide equal access to opportunity, is not living up to certain values. Diversity and inclusion are essential to CSR. If leadership prioritizes these issues, it creates a culture of social responsibility that serves employees, clients and customers well.
Consider policies around flexible work schedules and remote work options. Those might not seem directly related to CSR on the surface, but they are critical to making jobs more accessible to a wider swath of people. A company with rigid hours may have trouble attracting or retaining employees with young kids or an elder parent to care for, which can result in a homogenous workforce. Instituting a corporate culture that promotes work-life balance and employee wellbeing is also part of CSR.
The third pillar of CSR is community. Businesses have a role to play in making local communities and the planet a cleaner place to live. The Earth is the only life support system we have, and companies should be passionate about protecting it by applying green thinking to every decision. Every business, no matter the size, can have a positive impact on the environment by implementing green practices and procedures designed to address climate change.
The opportunities are endless: recycling programs; purchasing environmentally preferable office products like paper towels and cleaners; a water filtration system to reduce plastic water bottles; technology that automatically goes into energy saver mode; employee tree planting days; bonuses for green methods of commuting to work, like bicycling or public transportation. The list goes on, and no measure is too small.
How to build a CSR strategy
With these three pillars of CSR in mind, companies should embark on building a CSR strategy by first identifying their strengths. What are you good at? What do clients, potential hires, and the broader business community look to your company for? What do you have that no other company does? What can you offer that’s unique?
Next, consider what your clients and customers value. Are there particular issues they care about? Once you’ve identified those issues, how can your company support them? For example, if gender equality is a big area of interest, a company could donate to charitable organizations that have that mandate, as well as ensure the gender balance of the workplace is equitable and there are programs in place to support female leaders.
Companies should also solicit input from their employees when crafting a strategy. What do employees care about? Since one goal of CSR is to engage employees in collective action, their opinions carry a lot of weight. How do employees want to spend their time and company resources?
Finally, effective CSR programs capture analytics and measurements to gauge how successful campaigns really are. You want to make sure you are designing programs to have an impact, not just for show. Employees and clients alike will appreciate knowing what the outcomes are.
CSR is about giving back and helping find solutions to everyday issues – locally, nationally and globally. Ultimately the most successful CSR strategies are those that are not supplemental or peripheral, but rather baked into a company’s DNA. There are few aspects of a business that thoughtful CSR can’t improve. Incorporating CSR into the business strategy helps to build brand recognition and client/customer loyalty, achieves cost savings through reducing global footprint, attracts positive media attention, helps to find and retain top talent, and improves employee satisfaction and morale. But most importantly, companies that practice CSR can make a real difference in the world.