By Vincent Dajani
Business owners all over the country are seeing increasing demand for their company’s participation in philanthropy as younger generations enter the workforce. What’s more, customers also expect businesses to have a positive impact on their community or the environment in some way. Now more than ever, engaging in corporate social responsibility (CSR) is not just an option — it’s a requirement.
The need for sustainability
“Big companies that are focused on making their product cheaper and trying to sell more and more have realized that by doing this, they are going to lose investors, customers and employees,” says Mrim Boutla, Ph.D., co-founder and managing partner of More Than Money Careers, Benefit LLC. “As a result of that, more out of fear than the willingness to do the right thing,” companies are embracing CSR, she says.
Business owners are beginning to recognize that for their companies to remain viable, they need to treat both their employees and the environment well, says Ian Fisk, executive director of Mentor Capital Network. “It makes business sense.”
To stay in business, companies need to hire and retain key employees, and that means creating company loyalty. The new generation of employees wants to know that the companies they’re working for have a positive impact. “Keep a good reputation so people still want to buy from you, investors still want to invest in you and employees still want to work for you,” says Boutla.
“I think the growing trend of CSR is awesome. You have to ask yourself, why now?” says Stephanie Hau, president and CEO of Chesapeake Environmental Management, Inc. “Everyone started to realize: If we’re not supporting those groups that are taking care of the segments of society that we’re not taking care of, what does that mean for our community?”
CSR programs are popping up in major businesses, and have even become a form of self-regulation that is integrated into most business models. It is projected that within the next ten years, CSR will be a requirement for any business that wants to succeed. So, with social impact at the core of business, what are businesses doing to stay on top of this trend?
Business as a force for good
Some recently created business models revolve around using business as a force for social or environmental good. Companies can now be certified as Benefit Corporations (also known as B-Corporations or B-Corps.), which means that they are recognized as corporations that do not consider generating revenue their highest goal. “The need is already there; the recognition is what was lacking,” says Hau. She believes that more people need to recognize the companies that are making a difference. Under new, benefit-focused business models, companies that take a loss in profits to increase their sustainability and give back to the community are protected from the lawsuits of their shareholders.
These types of business models have seen incredible growth over the years, and certified B-Corporations are trying to raise awareness and teach business owners that business can be a force for good, either through CSR programs or through the simple tracking of their impact. “Just like it’s important to measure your financial performance, it’s also important to measure your social and environmental performance. We only manage what we measure,” says Katie Kerr, director of communications at B Lab, a nonprofit that specializes in the certification of for-profit companies that use business as a force for good.
Now, business owners — some certified as B-Corps., others just passionate about the community — have taken their businesses and turned them into ways to educate others on the impact that business can have both socially and environmentally. “Our mission and our purpose for being is connected to doing good,” says Anne Boyle, partner and director of strategy at RoundPeg. “We try to develop our people and mentor them to have a career that helps solve problems. We’re very much a teaching organization.”
“If you’re going to build something big, it should have an impact that’s positive,” says Veer Gidwaney, co-founder and CEO of Maxwell Health. “More and more companies should be a part of that movement.”
How then can companies do something to give back? “We can’t all be Whole Foods, but we can all do something. It doesn’t take much,” says John Kirsch, partner at 4TH BIN, Inc. “There are companies that need to stand up and say, ‘I can do more.’”
Time and talent
Obviously, not everyone can change the world, and companies still need to make money to stay in business.
“It’s a necessary part of business,” says Boyle. “You can’t do all those things without some form of money coming in the door, but it shouldn’t be about making money.”
One recent, growing trend is the donation of employees’ time and talent to a business, nonprofit or community project in need. Think of it like pro-bono work. CPA firms have worked on taxes or advised nonprofits; advertising agencies have helped promote community organizations.
“That pro bono movement is really expanding,” says Timothy J. McClimon, president of the American Express Foundation and vice president for corporate social responsibility at American Express Company. “You have to be true to your strengths as a company and try to capitalize on them. Those companies that are successful in CSR are ones that use their strengths, skills or products to help specific organizations.”
Work like this is not only great for the community but also an investment in your own company. For example, it provides free publicity and positive brand associations. Investing in your community is an investment in the future of your business. “Companies don’t have to do [charity], but they do,” Gidwaney says. “Do they do it out of self-interest? Do they do it to make the brand look good? Do they do it because of the goodness of their hearts? It’s probably a bit of all of that. But frankly, why should we care?”
Business is innately competitive, and soon every company will be racing to prove that it is the most charitable or the most impactful to the community and the environment. Regardless of the reasons behind this phenomenon, however, the fact is that cooperation between businesses and the community at large can be mutually beneficial and lead to healthier, more sustainable living. The end goal in all of this is a cultural shift to where everyone is doing something. “We’re just trying to have impact and change the world,” Gidwaney says. “If you’re going to spend time on this planet, you might as well make it better.”
The first-hand knowledge of organizations leading the charge in corporate social responsibility (CSR) is sure to inspire any business looking to give back. We asked local leaders to share their experiences with CSR and reflect on what makes a difference to the communities around them.
“It’s easy to not see poverty when you live in America, but when you go to India, you start to understand, because you can’t help but see poverty. At a really young age, I started hearing these stories. We have so much; we’ve been blessed. There are so many ways to give back without having to dedicate your entire life to impacts. There’s data that proves that people who volunteer on a daily basis live longer and healthier lives. The more that you reach out to your community, the more they will reach back to you. Not just in money, but in time and talent.”
“Where would we be without those that live and work in the communities we serve? Sharing what you know and providing services to the communities in which you live demonstrates your commitment to those that you serve. I feel so strongly about this because we were able to save the life of a mother [after] I was able to educate her son about suspicious moles. He noticed [a mole] on his mom and when [she] had it looked at, it turned out it was a melanoma. If we didn’t have community outreach and free public screenings as a part of our business model, that mom might not be around to watch her grandkids grow up.”
“Campbell has a responsibility to make good, honest food for the people who live, work and eat in our communities. As far as impact to our business, we continue to integrate our CSR and sustainability imperatives into our operations around the world. We’ve brought corporate social responsibility into our executive compensation system and included important metrics on energy, water, waste, safety and ethics. To improve the health of young people, we applied our expertise in nutrition and wellbeing to combat childhood obesity and hunger in communities. We’re extremely proud of our employees, who [have] volunteered to enhance the quality of people’s lives.”
“We’ve supported our employees for a walk for autism and another for cancer. Employees come up with the ideas and I say, “okay, we’ll support it.” I think that if we work and operate to serve the community, and leverage our talents and skills, we can certainly give to everyone. If we’re operating in an environment where resources are limited, it is our duty. Even if we don’t have the financial resources, if we have the time and the talent, it’s very important. You’re giving back to your future employees. When they go to college and come back, they’ll hopefully have the same mindset.” CEO