CSR for Smaller Businesses – Community Engagement

Here is Part 5 of the CSR for Small Business series and this post is looking at the benefits of engaging with the wider community outside the workplacepartnership.

But what has community go to do with business? The answer is your communities are your business.

Before we get into the practical advice for making more money we need to clarify what we mean by ‘community’. A dictionary will tell you that a community is a social group with a joint cause, in this context we will briefly look at a few different groups sometimes also called stakeholders (or to coin a phrase “anybody that can bugger up your business”) by corporates or consultants wanting to sound expensive.

In particular we’re going to concentrate on those groups outside of current customers, suppliers and employees. These groups are usually primary considerations and therefore usually well managed. It’s the secondary groups we encounter and only react to where we can improve our effectiveness.

 

Ok, now for some quick wins:

 

 1. Whose time and money?

I’ve not come across many businesses that don’t support a charity or good cause, especially at smaller organisations as they tend to be more accessible to local communities.

If you own or manage a small business and already help out good causes, do you know why? Are you doing it for the company’s benefit or because it’s important to you? Understanding the difference between an owner/manager’s personal values and those of the business (if recognised what they are) often get confused. It’s important to clarify what you support because you want to and what you support that can help your business. If anything is done on business time or with the company’s resources it should directly benefit the business. I’ve worked with organisations where the directors were clocking up impressive hours supporting good causes and calling it networking with very little benefit actually being delivered as a result. It’s easy to get sucked into the incredibly morally rewarding world of charities but your business can suffer. If your business is successful you’ll be able to give more but the business has to come first.

 

2. Formal charitable policydonation

By taking a little time to step back and think logically you should be able to increase the value of your offer to good causes whilst also improving your business. If you see tangible business benefits coming from working with good causes you are more likely to get more involved with them again in the future. The not-so-secret is to look at these types of relationships as longer term win-win scenarios and understand what the partner cause really needs and build a mutually beneficial partnership.

Many businesses react to charitable requests for time, cash or products as they come in and without proper management. Which causes are supported? Who chooses them? How much is spent?  Ad hoc management of any of resource inevitably leads to inefficiencies. Emotive issues usually generate emotive responses which can easily distract people especially with no organisational policy guidance.

By creating a clear set of principles for your company’s relationships with external charitable and community organisations you make it easier for everybody to maximise the use of their time.

Here are a few considerations when creating a formal charitable policy:

  • Define a budget (time, product amounts and /or financial) and evaluate performance annually.
  • Shop around. Like any supplier relationship try a few different potential partners. Select a cause that has energy and professionalism. Don’t just pick a partner because they are big or well known. The better causes understand that it is about giving as well as receiving and should be able to offer benefits such as access to their media resources, contact lists / referrals, volunteering opportunities or training for your employees.
  • Aim to build lasting relationships and don’t expect fantastic returns overnight. Put the effort in to understand your partner’s needs and offer your own suggestions. Sometimes people are afraid to ask or don’t know what they need. It should be a two-way relationship.
  • Select a cause that you can exploit your own strengths for, i.e. by offering your particular expertise, product, employees during quiet periods or access to extended networks.
  • Do you want to work with just one partner and focus or would you benefit more from a combination of local, regional, national, international and different topics (environmental, human rights, sport, children, disability, medical research etc)?
  • If your business aspires to grow geographically, regionally, nationally or internationally, can you find a partner that reflects your target boundaries. Barcelona Football Club has UNICEF across their shirts because the charity is a global brand!
  • Can you commit to an extended time period with your policy, say 1, 2 or 3 years? Oppositely, sometimes a change of partner can energise both sides of the relationship.
  • Could you encourage employees to engage in local charities or schools in their own time to help further their local understanding issues and enhance complimentary skills?
  • Be innovative. Get away from boring cheque handover photos, please! How about writing a cheque on the side of a cow, finding a new way to use Facebook or Twitter, turn your car park into a beach for a day, anything, but be creative?!
  • Aim for excellence. Treat your charitable relationships in the same way you would with a supplier or customer.

 

3. Payroll Giving

Providing a facility for employees to automatically make a donation to charities of their choice is a great quick win for all employers. You can be seen to be encouraging charitable support at very low cost and with minimal effort. There are specific payroll giving organisations that can manage this process in combination with your normal payroll process at extremely affordable rates. Not every employee will take you up on this offer but they will appreciate your consideration. There may be also financial incentives for both employee and employer dependent on your location.

 

4. Volunteering

I would advise serious consideration of encouraging all employees to participate in volunteering events for both their own favourite charity and also a more formal session with colleagues as part of the company. Just half a day for their own charity and half a day for a team event will create fantastic opportunities for morale building, group skills, gaining perspective and lead to improved personal performances. Volunteering can improve productivity, recruitment and retention by stimulating passions and providing a platform to learn and interact in a fresh environment away from the routine of work, in addition to supporting a needy project.

 

5. Schools and Higher Education

Youth is the future of tomorrow and also a great audience to get your business in front of, as long as it can be done sensitively. You should be aware of all the local educational establishments in your area. Consider ‘adopting’ a local school and look for partnership initiatives such as providing work based learning, encouraging employees to become governors, offering practical workshops about your industry. Giving a talk at an assembly at a local school is promoting your business to not only the children and teachers present but also the families back home. Don’t just think about promoting your products, think also about schools as pools of talent and creating your own educational programmes to tap into potential talent early.

 

6. Out of sight, out of mind – into work, into saleshomeless

There are many within all of our communities that are forgotten, hidden or ignored. Homeless people, ex-offenders, ethnic minority groups, disabled people, are just a few of those that society has marginalised for one reason or another. Stereotyping has further excluded many from our thoughts and to everybody’s detriment. These groups contain millions of people all with skills and disposable income that you can access with the right approach.

Not every homeless person sells the Big Issue, is an alcoholic or drug user, it can be just be somebody without what we would call a home or address. UK retailer Marks & Spencer has a great track record of taking homeless people on board with many offered full-time employment. Disabled people make up approximately 10% of the population of the UK; they all have money to spend and skills to offer. Is your product or site accessible to all? Don’t make it hard for people to spend money! Ex-offenders or ex-services are often stereotyped and can also provide a great source of employees.

Yes there are barriers to overcome such as perception, awareness and prejudice but for balance there are always rewards available for those with the vision to venture into less chartered waters. For each of these social groups there are numerous agencies desperate for private sector support that are able to help you with any.

I can speak with personal experience of working with all of the above social groups with only positive, and many inspirational stories after overcoming the popular misconceptions and ignorance that we all have. Be brave, take one step and explore all the opportunities for new recruits, new sales and fantastic reputation.

 

7. Buy from us and be a good person

Why not encourage customers to buy our product by offering a donation to a partner cause? Cause Related Marketing is a great way to improve sales by tapping into new customers because of an association with an appropriate good cause. Plant a tree, buy a water well in a developing country, vaccines for children in poverty, books / sport equipment / computers for schools, you’ve probably heard of at least one of those, why not try it for your business? The cost of the additional promise should be more than covered by the increased sales, not to mention the reputational benefit.

 

Have you got any examples of successful community engagement initiatives?

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