For decades Fortune 500 companies have gravitated to cause marketing and corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs with the belief that doing well by doing good is good business. Now small and mid-size businesses are picking up the social responsibility gauntlet. Locally active companies are balancing support of worthy causes with their focus on growing their businesses.
There are a lot of great reasons for companies of all types and sizes to embrace societal and environmental causes beyond the motivation to give back.
First, there is the positive brand affinity that comes from being associated with a well-regarded charity. The right cause can be a powerful catalyst for advancing and protecting the company’s reputation with employees, customers, consumers and other community stakeholders. Not surprisingly, in today’s customer-centric marketplace consumers expect the companies they do business with to engage in causes that improve the lives of people in communities where they operate.
Recognizing this, many small businesses approach their charitable giving activities by becoming valuable community members through participation in civic and fundraising activities, making in-kind donations, volunteering and giving to many local causes. Although this is an effective way to build strong personal and professional relationships, it is not always the best way to develop CSR efforts that have long-term branding impact.
Writer Oliver Russell, a Boise, Idaho consultant focused on leveraging the power of social enterprise, points out in this blog that companies wanting to “stand out by standing for something” use their influence, resources and communities to make a positive impact through CSR. Purpose-driven brands meet purpose-driven consumers to actualize their brand relationships.
Apparently, the owners of mid-size companies agree. A recent study conducted by Business4Better finds 66 percent of mid-size business owners say they are seeking to establish or improve their CSR efforts at their business and in the community. While there are many reasons for this, owners cited increased business performance, employee participation and improved reputation.
So how do business leaders tap into charitable causes to create brand equity and local impact while avoiding common pitfalls that may stand in their way? Here are five guidelines to keep in mind:
- Plan CSR efforts around your long-term business vision and values. Does the charity’s mission fit with your business product or service? Is it aligned with your company mission, culture and purpose? Will it be meaningful to your core customer? Is there a real and urgent or compelling need the charity is addressing? Consumers want to see an authentic connection between the brand and the cause. There should be a logical association between your business and the campaign you are supporting, one that represents a natural fit. If the causal association is real and rings true, chances are it will also resonate with key stakeholders.
- Choose a charity partner carefully. There are literally thousands of national and local charities supporting community development, human services, art, education, health and other causes. Some have better reputations than others. CharityWatch, GuideStar and the Better Business Bureau provide ratings and insights on a vast array of charities. These watchdog groups take a close look at each charity’s financial management, transparency, and mission accountability giving their highest ratings to the most reputable charities. For example, Habitat for Humanity International, a non-profit supporting housing and neighborhood development, helped provide dignity, hope and opportunity for more than 1.8 million people worldwide in 2015. Getting involved with Habitat’s local chapter may make sense for mid-size or small businesses, such as realtors, mortgage financing firms, banks and building supply retailers, who share the organization’s core value: providing decent, affordable homes to families and individuals.
- Get your agreement in writing. Like any collaboration or business arrangement, make sure that both parties clearly understand what the charity is seeking, how the business partner is filling that need and what the company hopes to get from the relationship. Set expectations upfront. Establish a time frame. What makes this a win-win for each party? Who is responsible for doing what? While a formal agreement is not always necessary, getting everything on paper and reviewing it can help you avoid any “he said, she said” conversations later on. Misunderstandings between charities and benefactors often play out on social media, so missteps here can have very negative implications for your business reputation.
- Promote the cause with passion. Consumers have literally hundreds of causes they can get behind and likely will respond to those with a strong personal connection, story or appeal. If they don’t know about the need or cause, they have no way of knowing how they can lend a hand. And simply being aware of a charitable need does not always translate into intent to contribute or demonstrable action by the consumer. People want to know that the money, time or effort they give to the charities they support will make a real difference. Don’t just tell them, show them how and back it up through colorful storytelling. Find ways to bring the story to life through all traditional and social media channels.
- Remember, less is more. While it’s O.K. not to put all of your charitable eggs in one basket, selecting one or two primary, relatable causes aligned with your brand strategy provides more bang for your giving buck. Avoid trying to be “all things to all people” by spreading your charitable efforts too thin. Whether you are focused on building a better world or improving your bottom line, channeling cause-related marketing through a focused message and strategy has more impact and is more memorable to your stakeholders.
The vast majority of small business owners are feeling optimistic about business growth in 2016, according to a new national survey by Endurance International Group. That optimism should translate into greater opportunities for charities seeking to partner with companies on CSR initiatives and the businesses who step up to the cause home plate.
Leaders of small- and mid-size companies seeking strategic guidance for their social responsibility or cause marketing efforts should feel free to contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my current or former employers, my friends and colleagues, nor anyone I have met or may meet in the future.