Employees company-wide, particularly local ones, are a critical, under-utilized source of market intelligence. They can tell you where the greatest needs lie, how to reach key audiences and which approaches will work best.
By Rebecca Regan-Sachs
Many companies, particularly in developing countries, conduct CSR/community investment projects in similar ways: they identify a social cause, try to find (usually international) NGO partners for implementation and establish a team to manage their participation in the program.
But the old way of implementing these programs is changing, with trends pointing to new approaches aimed at better combining business and social goals in increasingly efficient ways. We outlined the basics of this approach in our recent article, “Franchising CSR: The Future of Corporate Social Responsibility?”
In response to the feedback and questions we received, here's a quiz to see how closely your business aligns with this these new approaches:
1) What is the main driver for your business to invest in community development?
a) Improving our image after a recent scandal
b) Addressing a key social problem in the area where we operate
c) Helping the community in a way that aligns with our business objectives
d) Making sure our workers are safe and our operations meet legal requirements
2) What are the most important factors you take into consideration when determining the kind of CSR programs to implement? (Choose all that apply.)
a) Specific obstacles to growing our business in this area
b) Reaching our target consumer or political audience
c) The issues the CEO/management care most about globally
d) Choosing a program that we have the resources and expertise to sustain
3) How does this community project connect with the community work your company is doing elsewhere?
a) Each country is different and requires a different approach.
b) We operate programs in the same sectors (such as health or education) everywhere we work.
c) All our community programs are run by the same branch of the company, with the same leadership, using the same pool of money.
d) We’ve developed a few effective programs and have replicated them (with local adaptations) around the world.
4) How does your CSR programming develop consistent brand recognition for your company?
a) The scholarships, schools and clinics we’ve funded carry our company name.
b) Since we do the same programs in different places, we reinforce a reputation in these key issue areas everywhere we work.
c) Following all health, safety and operational regulations gives us all the positive recognition we need.
d) We’re known for underwriting a variety of big projects in different sectors that address critical social problems.
5) How are you engaging your employees in your community investment?
a) Employees have direct input on program design and often participate in the same CSR program in different offices around the world.
b) With oversight from headquarters, a select team of employees researches options on the ground and runs implementation of the programs.
c) Our corporate foundation manages most of our community projects so employees in the business arm of the company can focus on their regular jobs.
d) We provide time off and other incentives for our employees to do volunteer work of their choosing, though we don’t have official ways to connect them with our own company’s CSR projects.
Evaluating Your Responses
While there are no hard and fast “right” answers (and many firms may have different or even multiple responses to these questions across the globe), some approaches clearly lean more strongly in the direction of sustainable impact.
1) – (c) Helping the community in a way that aligns with our business objectives.
All of the responses are valid in different ways, but only c) addresses the key sustainability challenge: to help your business by helping the community.
Many companies, commendably, want to tackle social problems in the areas where they work (option b)—but if these efforts don’t align with the company’s business expertise, they can often prove unsustainable—frequently falling casualty to budget cuts, changes in management and/or changes in local political leadership.
Responding to a crisis (a) can be a useful driver for action in the short term, but is not a longer-term strategy. And bragging about care for employees (d) can be a double-edged sword—most audiences assume this is part of doing business, so highlighting this as a social contribution can actually raise questions instead of bringing positive attention.
2) – (a) What are the obstacles to growing our business in this area?
b) Who is our target audience?
d) Do we have the resources and expertise to make this program sustainable?
There are many other questions to consider but these get at the “why” “who” and “how” of CSR. Many problems affecting business operations have their roots in social problems. Identifying these obstacles allows a company to address both issues at once, through smart programs in partnership with the community.
As for the “who” question, you can’t design an effective CSR program without understanding who exactly you’re trying to reach—from members of the community to government officials—and what their needs, priorities and ways of working are. Building them and their feedback into the process makes the results much more durable.
Finally, how will your company implement the program effectively and sustainably? Do you have expertise in key aspects of the program? And for how long will you assume the operating costs—in other words, what’s your exit strategy? Often, a project generates a lot of initial excitement and then (without careful planning), the interest, funding and commitment rapidly fade.
3) – (d) We’ve developed a few effective programs and have replicated them (with local adaptations) around the world.
While many companies create meaningful community projects in similar sectors or similar ways worldwide, too few are taking a “franchise” approach to CSR. As we discussed previously, developing social programs that can be replicated anywhere saves a company time and money, creates a network effect and builds a consistent brand reputation that gets reinforced by doing the same type of programs in many different places. This doesn’t need to replace other forms of community investment but can provide a powerful amplifier effect for what you’re already doing.
4) – (b) Since we do the same programs in different places, we reinforce a reputation in these key issue areas, everywhere we work.
As they say in politics, if you want a message to stick, repeat it over and over. Generally speaking, the wider the variety of your CSR programs, the harder it is to convey a clear message about your company’s social priorities.
When you choose the right kind of program, perfect it and then replicate it wherever you work, it builds “stickiness” around your brand that makes you stand out in a crowded field. In addition, community-facing programs take time and expertise. Building muscle memory around commonly structured projects can enable firms to bring more (and lower-cost) employees into the operation, freeing up time for more senior staff.
5) – (a) Employees have direct input on program design, and often participate in the same CSR program in different offices around the world.
In many companies, CSR is the responsibility of a particular project team or even a separate corporate foundation. But employees company-wide, particularly local ones, are a critical, under-utilized source of market intelligence. They can tell you where the greatest needs lie, how to reach key audiences and which approaches will work best. And engaging employees in both the design and implementation of community programs sends a positive message to the staff and can help with morale, employee retention and attracting new workers.
Finally, for larger international firms, having a common program and community platform can enhance the sense of the larger corporate community, one that values employees across the many countries where it operates.
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About the Author:
Rebecca Regan-Sachs is the Communications Manager at AMGlobal Consulting, a firm that specializes in building business and social value in emerging markets. With nearly a decade of experience in international development and strategic communications, she specializes in private sector approaches to development challenges, focusing particularly on Africa. Rebecca has an MBA from Oxford University and a B.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University.