Mid-sized businesses eager to improve their fortunes, expand market share, attract bright new recruits, lure investors and more, are starting to recognize that having a robust Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program in place is fundamental to those efforts.

And yes, we’re serious. In fact, there’s a growing body of evidence to support it. Consider these snippets from a Cone Communications/Omnicom Group survey:

  • 86% of consumers are more likely to trust a company that reports its CSR results
  • 82% of consumers are more likely to buy a product that demonstrates a brand’s CSR commitments
  • 40% of consumers will not purchase from a company that does not produce CSR results

And this data is from 2012, meaning these numbers have only gone up.

Call-out-graphic-3The challenge for a lot of companies is that while today’s sophisticated consumer, investor, recruit, etc., expects a company’s CSR programs to be immediately accessible, most don’t have a clue where to look because those companies either aren’t doing those programs or aren’t communicating them.

Concludes Cone Communications’ EVP Jonathan Yohannan: “Purpose is no longer enough and successful campaigns must demonstrate return for business, brand, and society. ‘Proving purpose’ is the new mantra for effective CSR.”

CSR or Bust

Not so very long ago corporate philanthropy wasn’t even known as CSR. Big brands did their part by cutting a check for, say, a high-profile disaster relief effort; provided financial or in-kind support for community activities; engaged their employees in a United Way campaign; and so on.

Boy have times changed. Today, consumers are fully in charge of if, when, and how brands are engaged and most only want to buy from companies with a demonstrated habit of caring. Millennials and other younger types are eager to work for companies with strong CSR opportunities, and prospective business partners, Board members, and other brand stakeholders often are as focused on a company’s philanthropic or sustainability efforts as its bottom line.

The result: Big, visible brands (aka the Fortune 500) has been required to:

  • Develop robust, highly visible CSR programs that show they care
  • Demonstrate their commitment to community, sustainability, and philanthropy; and
  • Give their employees outlets for their own philanthropic-minded interests

Fortune 500 already are starting to emulate their larger counterparts in one important way: by creating the kinds of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs that set them apart from their competition, attract top-notch talent, and publicly demonstrate their commitment to their employees, communities, sustainability, and more. Much more.

But for every mid-sized business adding a CSR program to its operational mix, there are many others that know they want to launch a program of their own but are unsure what’s involved.

To help, AmeriGives Consulting is offering up the CSR Spectrum, which is intended to guide smaller businesses through the CSR process – from those early, tentative forays into CSR’s waters all the way to full-blown, multifaceted, deep employee engagement.

The CSR Spectrum Defined

To some degree, we call it a spectrum because as with any business operation, a healthy, successful CSR program requires a disciplined approach that eventually engages management and employees alike. It may start as a kind of add-on to existing operational practices, but over time must necessarily take on a life of its own.AG-Impact-concept2

The five stages of the CSR Spectrum:

1) Benefits Programs

This is the point where the company has made the commitment to at least support a CSR program of some kind – maybe a company-sponsored volunteer-fueled Day of Service or sponsorship and participation in a charity walk (the so-called ‘thons’). Or the company might take it a step farther and create a Matching Gift effort or institute a United Way campaign. At this stage oversight and management of any CSR program is usually conducted from within an existing department, most often Human Resources.

2) Workplace Giving

As those tentative first CSR programs find their legs, they become an increasingly entrenched part of the company fabric. Usually at this stage CSR is formally recognized as the company’s Workplace Giving program, employees recognize it as a distinct part of their culture, budgets are started, and outside vendors or consultants are engaged to assist in the maturation process.

3) Cause Marketing

If all has gone according to plan, this is the stage where CSR really begins to take on a life of its own, with conversations and planning taking place in the C-suite or even the boardroom. The company stakeholders may opt for fewer, but more impactful grants or seek partnership opportunities with key nonprofits. The executive team also will start asking questions that help align CSR with brand identity and mission, such as: Do we and our employees want to focus on community initiatives, global efforts, sustainability, etc.? How best to execute against those ideals with the programs, tools, and services available?

4) Employee Engagement

With the CSR program fully integrated into the brand experience, the next step is to move toward broad-based employee engagement, meaning not just participation but also solicitation of employee input, ideas, and recommendations. This is particularly important in an era where a majority of Millennials and other young professionals are seeking employment with companies that care about more than just the bottom line. As such, companies at this stage start offering Days of Service and other volunteerism opportunities, where employees can parlay their particular skills in support of favorite charities and community groups, with full credit from the brand.

5) Corporate Citizenship

At this point CSR programs have become an institutional mainstay, as fundamental to the company as any other employee-centric benefit or program. Which means that companies are similarly committed to using CSR data to measure those efforts to refine, augment, or even expand into new areas of community or charitable engagement. In short, brands focus not simply on gauging the impact of their CSR programs but on rethinking them to ensure the best possible outcomes for brand and employee alike.

Why the CSR Spectrum Matters to Mid-Sized Businesses

As is always the case, the Fortune 500 was the first to respond to such changes, but mid-sized business and even some of their smaller counterparts, are recognizing the same call to action.

The point being that the CSR Spectrum is the same for every company. You need to learn to walk before you run, but ultimately, even small- to mid-sized businesses are going to need to complete this journey if theCall-out-graphicy are to truly compete in the new economy.

This point was driven home for us recently when we were asked to help a 200-employee government contractor develop an internal CSR program to help them fit within a rapidly evolving government contracting mindset. As the company’s COO explained: “Community involvement is part of the federal government bid process. We now have to demonstrate that we are good corporate citizens.”

Like it or not (and there is a lot to like about this development), CSR is quickly becoming a corporate must and not just for the Fortune 500. The buying public, corporate partners, the media, stakeholders, hiring recruits and employees are all expecting much more from brands of every size, shape, and sophistication.

Steve Greenhalgh

Stephen Greenhalgh is one of the leading consultants in the workplace giving, employee engagement, and Corporate Social Responsibility industry. Steve has spent more than 25 years working with both Fortune 500 and Philanthropy 400 clients, as well as a number of small-to-midsized organizations pursuing corporate giving strategies.