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Social inspiration from an unlikely space – the corporate world

While Blue Garnet is known mostly for its work in with nonprofits and philanthropies, we also proudly work with socially-minded corporate clients. Our corporate clients wrestle with many of the same questions as our nonprofit and foundation clients, such as impact articulation and measurement. However, they do have a unique challenge: clarifying their purpose. Corporate citizenship (or CSR or community development) departments that began as legal compliance or “charity work” purely for marketing purpose purposes are evolving. A new wave of leaders has “found a seat at the table” and they have a genuine commitment to sustainable social change and are armed with innovative, inspiring ideas.

An article called, “Five Social Impact Trends that Inspire Us,” outlines five of those inspiring ideas. Spoiler alert: the articles highlights and describes the trends of increased transparency, workplace volunteerism, corporate leaders taking a stand on polarizing issues, correlation between purpose and profit, and impact measurement. While it’s a great starting point – I wanted to push the list further and add my two cents. My reflections come from an extensive corporate citizenship benchmarking effort among leading corporate citizenship companies I recently led at Blue Garnet. So, without further ado – here are a few additional trends that I think are not only inspiring, but critical to truly maximize the impact of a corporate citizenship.

  • Increased engagement: As the article mentions, corporations are more frequently taking a stance on polarizing issues – everything from climate change to LGBTQ rights and immigration. In fact – many corporations seemed to have developed a public persona. But whose views is the corporation expressing? I believe it’s a combination of key leaders, staff, and its community. In order for an organization to accurately express the beliefs of and truly engage with its staff and community, many leading corporate citizens have learned the value of listening. In order to not only align your corporate views to your key stakeholders’, but also improve the well-being of your employees and community – you need to ask them – directly, genuinely, and regularly. I heard some great examples, including robust “listening tours,” community and employee surveys, and a community taskforce to inform corporate priorities.
  • Empowered employees: In line with the article’s trend of increased transparency and “bringing your true self to work,” leading corporate citizens are handing over (some of the) reigns. They are empowering employees to direct corporate resources. The most common way employees are given a “voice” is through workplace giving campaign donations matches. Additionally, more companies are letting employees decide the nonprofit beneficiaries of corporate volunteer events. And to save the best for last – a few leading companies let a panel of employees determine its community grant beneficiaries.
  • Increased focus: Sophisticated citizenship programs have moved beyond the “confetti” or “spray and pray” approach where lots of small grants/gifts are provided to many different organizations. These grants are nice – but lack the power to truly make a difference. This approach is typical when a company’s primary citizenship objective is marketing-focused (e.g. building a company’s reputation). However, if a corporation truly wants to fund sustainable social change and develop a brand known for doing good, it needs to focus its giving priorities and provide fewer, larger grants to long-term grantee partners. Additionally – particularly in technology – leading companies align corporate giving objectives and priorities with corporate and employee expertise. A couple of real-life examples are a utility company that prioritizes STEM education or a technology company that provides grants to organizations that use technology to combat society’s biggest challenges. The benefits of a focused, strategic giving strategy are two-fold: employees are more easily engaged when they understand and connect to your citizenship efforts (which is easier to do when the objectives are aligned to their expertise) and it provides a great opportunity for skills-based volunteering (e.g. an engineer for a utility company mentoring a student at the local school’s corporate-sponsored robotics lab).
  • Becoming certified: B-Corporations take the commitment to be a good corporate citizenship to the next level! B Corps are purpose-driven and creates benefit for all STAKEholders – not just SHAREholders. The goal: redefine success in business. B-Corps are certified to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. While a relatively new type of company, there are already a lot of them – more than 2,100 from 50 countries and over 130 industries. You many have heard of a few of them: Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and (yours truly) Blue Garnet! (click here for more information about B-Corps)

I hope you are inspired as I am. What you would add to the list?