The Five Questions Every Corporate Responsibility Program Should Answer

Toms has generosity baked into its business model.  When you buy a pair of shoes or eyewear for yourself, another one just like it goes to someone in need.

 When you buy a pair of shoes or eyewear from Toms, another one just like it goes to someone in need.

Looking to start a corporate giving or social responsibility program at your company? It’s not as simple as writing a check to the CEO’s favorite charities and calling it a day.  In an era of social giving programs, “social responsibility” can market your brand and galvanize your employees for good. Perhaps even more important, a good social giving program can put good will in the metaphorical “bank” for when you need it most.

The difference between a good and a great corporate giving program is all in the planning and control.  You can get that control by answering these five questions–before you start.

1)     How does your corporate giving support your overall corporate mission and business goals?

Wait–shouldn’t you give for altruism alone? Well yes, but in today’s sophisticated philanthropic landscape, you don’t have to settle just for that.  Today, it’s entirely possible to have a program that gives back to the community/world while reinforcing who you are as a company.  General Electric, for instance, recently gave $10.5 million to the school system in Louisville, Ky, where their Appliance operation is headquartered, to help develop the kind of math and science curriculum that will fuel the workforce they need in the future. Their gift has given them direct say in how curriculum is developed in the school system–a worthy investment that could pay big dividends later.  Give some thought to the local, national and international charities which line up best with what your company does.  You just might be able to pull solid business benefits from what many companies look at just as a corporate write off.

 2)  How are your employees and your leadership involved?

Surveys show that employees not only want  to contribute to corporate charity initiatives, they actively look to work for companies who take social responsibility seriously.    When you are looking for a charitable partner, look for one that allow your employees to get actively involved in large, organized groups.  Can you organize a day of giving, where employees refurbish a home or office, or complete a project in the community?  What about specialized employee giving that accomplishes a specific goal, like building a water filtration system for an African village, or fund the building of a new ball field at a local park?  Your charitable partner should be able to provide you with a framework that you can use to mobilize your employees, so they can see the benefits of their contributions.

While you are picking your corporate charities, also give an eye to the sorts of leaders who inhabit their boards and their major initiatives.  Are the people on those boards leaders at other companies that could be potential clients/customers for your business, or influential partners in other ways?  For instance, if you are a healthcare company, it would make sense to have key executives on the board of an important public health intiative, or the local bio-sciences economic development board.  Charitable activity gives your employees and leaders the opportunities to build crucial relationships outside the office.

3)  What is your protocol for incoming requests?

Once a company becomes known for its charitable activities, consider the floodgates open.  You will be bombarded with requests unless you have a clear strategy on number and type of charities you will support.  It is a great idea to add a page to your corporate website that shows the charities you are already supporting, and gives a mission statement about the reasons you are supporting them.  If your company and efforts are large enough, it’s often a good idea to start a separate foundation with its own staff to manage your charitable operations.  This offers the company tax benefits and gives you the resources to deal with your efforts more comprehensively.  Every major city has a community foundation that can help you set up your own.

 4)  How will you market your charitable program?

There’s always the obvious—plan a big day of giving and make sure you send out plenty of press releases about it to the local/trade press.  But have you considered amplifying your efforts by getting your customers involved?  You could consider donating a portion of your profits during a promotional period to a specific cause.  You could make donations optional in your online store.  Or, like Toms, you could build charitable giving into your overall business model.  However your charitable program plays out, give some serious thought to the communications channels that are available to you.  Where would messages about your charitable activities make sense?  Your company enewsletter, blog, Facebook page or Twitter accounts?  In posters in your physical stores (maybe with a QR code that takes you to videos of your employee giving day) ?  Framed photos in your lobby?  Banners on your website?  Press releases to the trade?  A video channel on your employee Intranet?   Just make sure your messages are heart felt, authentic and show real tangible results from your efforts.  Otherwise, you could get accused of being involved in your charities ONLY for the business benefits.

 5)  How will you measure success and accountability?

Most giving campaigns, even the ones for organizations like United Way, have giving targets and such.  But,real success comes from the impact of your generosity–and in this case, all charities are not created equal.  How far did your money go?  Did your employees finish building that Habitat for Humanity house?  How much produce did the community garden you planted reap?  Are the recipients of your donations monitored?  Is the money being used responsibly?  When you talk about your charitable efforts, you need to be able to tell the story of who you helped, and how much, in very real terms.  And you need assurances that the governance of these charities has their eye on the bottom line.  Sitting on their boards is not just a vanity assignment, but a crucial way to make sure your dollars and efforts and doing what they were intended to do.

Sounds like a lot of work?  It is.  But it can be one of the most important things your company does.  Do it well.