Implement great CSR by putting the business benefits first

There are an infinite number ways for businesses to create social impact through their CSR programs. Firms can tackle social issues, environmental issues, or engage in corporate philanthropy. Need specific examples? Check out CSRWire for an ever growing list, or download our free whitepaper for ideas. So where do you start?

The typical process usually starts with a list of program ideas: We should donate to charity. We should do some volunteering. We should add something progressive to our benefits package. Unfortunately, only after a particular idea is selected does anyone try to determine if there’s some sort of business benefit.

Instead, look at it the other way around. First identify the business benefit you want, and then select a CSR program that moves you in that direction. The most common business benefits of CSR (for small to mid-sized business) are legitimacy, visibility, differentiation, client relationships, and employee relationships. Let’s look at each of them in turn.

Legitimacy

Social and ethical norms shift, sometimes changing what can be considered an acceptable business practice. For example, even though Nike wasn’t breaking any laws, activists put the company under intense pressure to address poor working conditions in the factories that make their products.   While Nike eventually handled the problem, ignoring it could have threatened Nike’s entire business. 

Not all businesses have such obvious legitimacy challenges, but there are likely to be negative environmental or social impacts somewhere, even if they’re as basic as electricity and water use. 

Visibility

It’s probably not possible for a firm to have too much visibility. If marketed properly, CSR practices can result in good attention for your company. More frequent positive media (and social media) mentions all support brand awareness. 

Differentiation

On occasion, I meet someone who is mystified by the success of Toms Shoes. If you’re not familiar with Toms, they're a shoe company that donates one pair of shoes for each pair purchased. The shoes themselves are floppy little canvas things, but they sell for $55. And they’re incredibly successful. Obviously, they’re doing a lot of things right, but their One for One® program really made them stand out in the already saturated shoe market. 

Client/Customer Relationships

This benefit is the one most likely to be used to justify a charity event table sponsorship. But there are more cost effective ways to improve client relationships with your CSR programs. If the client is involved with a charity, it can’t hurt to dig deeper to find out why. Perhaps it’s because their employer requires them to sit on a board, and that particular organization has the fewest meetings! 

But charity isn’t the only way to make your customers happy, is it? Investments in product safety can absolutely be considered CSR in these cases. For example, Muse Air banned smoking on all of its flights back in 1982 for the health of its customers and crew — six years before any competitors (who all banned smoking because of federal law).    

Employee Relationships

This is perhaps the benefit with the widest range of CSR program options. From volunteering to “jeans day” to socially progressive employee benefits, there are hundreds of ways to make your employees happier with CSR. 

Identifying the benefits of CSR first helps you weed out low-ROI programs. If the overall business benefit isn’t that important to you, you might be wasting your time implementing programs around it.