If you’re a business owner, you need more than a great product and excellent service to succeed today. Your customers also want to know what you’re doing to make a difference in your community.
Reportedly, 55 percent of customers spend more with companies that demonstrate they care about their communities and 90 percent say they would switch to a product or service associated with a good cause if both were of similar price and quality. Given those statistics, it’s not surprising that socially conscious companies have outperformed the market by fivefold over the past 10 years.
Businesses used to consider corporate social responsibility — CSR — as optional. However, it’s now “emphatically and indisputably a must-do,” according to a recent report by Cone Communications and Echo Research. If you want to win over today’s consumers, and keep them, the key is giving back.
What exactly is CSR? It can be many things — assisting local nonprofits in providing services to individuals in need, creating a cleaner environment, funding research to cure disease or any other activity that drives social or environmental change.
We’re all familiar with companies who have taken on highly visible CSR initiatives. One of the best known is Toms, which donates one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes it sells and whose homepage encourages visitors to “do good and inspire others.”
CVS Caremark is another. Last year they created a lot of buzz with the announcement that they would cease selling cigarettes and tobacco because they felt that promoting public health was the right thing for the national pharmacy to do. The company hopes to build trust and loyalty among customers by demonstrating just how much it values keeping the community healthy.
However, CSR efforts don’t need to be huge to be effective.
Here in Westchester, Cambria Hotel and Suites in White Plains is a business that has fully embraced the CSR mentality. Supporting the cause of assisting Westchester’s homeless individuals, they have partnered with Lifting Up Westchester to assist homeless men at the agency’s Open Arms Men’s Shelter. Cambria Suites has committed to a six-month “donate and serve” program in which employees and guests contribute to a monthly food drive, followed by an evening in which Cambria Suites volunteers serve dinner at the shelter. The program has had a tremendous impact on their employees.
Additionally, Cambria Suites opens its lobby to homeless individuals seeking warmth during the winter, and then provides a shuttle service to bring them to Open Arms where they can get an emergency bed, meals and counseling. Cambria Suites also supports Lifting Up Westchester by making a donation to its annual fundraising dinner, which helps with fundraising critical to the nonprofit.
These companies are onto something. According to the Cone study, after learning that a company is socially and/or environmentally responsible, 90 percent of consumers are more likely to trust the company and 88 percent say they will be more loyal to its products or services.
While consumers across the board want companies to be socially conscious, millennials are the most passionate about it. They are the first generation to have grown up alongside CSR and it’s what they now expect. Not only do millennials personally want to get involved and contribute to the greater good, they want the businesses they deal with to keep in step.
Soon to be the largest consumer spending group in history, the millennial voice is one to be reckoned with. Already 80 million strong, millennials will account for $1 trillion of consumer spending this year.
When 83 percent of millennials say that businesses should be involved in societal issues and more than one in 10 say they would switch to a product or service provided by a company that is associated with a cause, it behooves companies to listen.
Millennial employees are also looking for workplaces that care about more than their bottom line. Sixty-two percent say they would even be willing to take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible company.
What all of this means is that if social commitment isn’t already part of your business plan, it’s time for a change.
Putting a CSR plan into action can be a great team builder if you involve your employees in brainstorming about what cause and nonprofit your company will support and about creative ways to help.
The key to a successful CSR program is to avoid one-time volunteer efforts that may seem self-promoting. It’s also wise to focus on a core cause rather than spreading your CSR initiatives across several unrelated issues.
Ideally, your core cause should be something related to your business or your passion. For example, businesses in the food industry could focus on financial donations and volunteer efforts to help feed the 200,000 Westchester residents who are at risk of hunger.
Owners of downtown businesses might think about supporting homeless outreach efforts that help shelter and rehabilitate homeless individuals, giving them a better life — and keeping them out of downtown doorways.
There are many ways to give back to the community. Money is every nonprofit’s biggest need so making a financial donation, which can be put to work immediately to fund research, provide meals or clean up the environment, is always a good start. Committing to a recurring donation, whether it’s monthly, quarterly or semiannually, can help nonprofits to plan better for the future.
Volunteer projects or the donation of a pro bono service is another good way to help. For example, a bank could support the cause of lifting kids from poverty by providing a series of financial workshops to at-risk kids in an after-school program and helping older students with college financial aid applications.
Some companies provide full pay to employees who spend a day or two volunteering in the community during work hours or organize a companywide day or afternoon of service. However, it’s important to remember that many nonprofit agencies cannot handle a large group of volunteers at one time. Although your offer to provide 20 volunteers may be well-meaning, it can be more of a headache than a help. It’s far better to send four to six employee volunteers at a time and to spread your efforts over several afternoons doing something like helping at a community garden or reading to young children.
Finally, corporate fundraisers can help boost employee morale and foster team building as employees work together or even compete as groups towards a common goal.
In celebration of National Nurses Week in May, employees at White Plains Hospital raised almost $9,000, enough to send 17 homeless children to Lifting Up Westchester’s Brighter Futures Summer Camp. Their efforts included an online appeal to hospital staff, a bake sale and continuous email updates and challenges urging staff to exceed the initial goal of providing five camp scholarships.
Whatever CSR initiative you decide is right for your company and your employees, it’s important to put it on your website and shout it out across multiple media channels including social media. Consumers want to know what core cause and nonprofit you are supporting, and what kind of impact you and the charity are having. They want to hear your stories, feel an emotional connection to them and be proud of doing with business with you. If they’re millennials, they’ll also want to share those stories with friends and families.
In the end, what’s good for the community, and particularly the one in which you work and live, will be good for your business too.
Paul Anderson-Winchell is executive director of Lifting Up Westchester, a nonprofit in White Plains that provides food and shelter and housing and other services to individuals and families in need. He can be reached at 914-949-3098, ext. 9750, or at