Cheap, Easy Ways to Embrace Corporate Social Responsibility

Companies that do good do well. Is it time to start giving back to your employees and your community?
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Volunteering time and taking responsibility for your business' environmental and social impacts help to show your customers that you share the same values as them. (Photo: Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

As a small business owner, turning a profit and maintaining positive cash flow are your main objectives. “Doing good” for the community or the environment may be pretty far down your to-do list. But moving it higher up can pay off.

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According to Tamara Stenn, owner of KUSIKUY, a fair trade social enterprise in the sustainable clothing industry, corporate social responsibility pays off in the end. (Photo: Tamara Stenn)

The old adage about “doing well by doing good” applies to small business that embrace corporate social responsibility (CSR).

“CSR can bring value to small businesses when their sustainability activities and actions align to their customer or employee values,” said Brad Pease, vice president of Paladino and Company, a small sustainability and green building consulting firm.

Millennials especially want to work for and do business with companies that are acting responsibly. In fact, 70 percent of millennials consider working for a responsible company core to their happiness,” said Pease.

What is corporate social responsibility, exactly?

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“To us, corporate social responsibility is more than an initiative, it is baked into the corporate culture.” -Christen Graham (Photo: Christen Graham)

It’s many things — and plenty of them don’t have to cost you a dime. “CSR is more of a mindset than an expense,” said Tamara Stenn, owner of KUSIKUY, a fair trade social enterprise in the sustainable clothing industry. And, she said, “It raises you above the competition.”

Ray McKenzie, founder and principal of management consulting firm Red Beach Advisors in Los Angeles, agreed. “Demonstrating giving back to the community is an amazing thing, not only for the community, but also for employees and the health of businesses.”

Christen Graham emphasized that CSR goes beyond a one-time action. Graham is president of Give Strong, Inc., a social impact consulting firm that counsels companies on best strategies to make a positive social impact.

“To us, corporate social responsibility is more than an initiative, it is baked into the corporate culture. CSR is not just charitable giving or employee volunteerism, although those can be components of it,” she said. Being “responsible” to your own staff is also part of it.

“Start internally — how does the company treat its employees? Does the business have a diverse workforce? Is staff safe? Is the business environmentally responsible?” Graham emphasized that doing no harm is just as important as “giving back.”

Here are nine affordable ways to bake CSR into your business.

Create a safe, inclusive work environment

Good CSR starts within your company. Are you providing a living wage and good benefits? Are you doing everything you can to keep your staff safe? Graham cited a small manufacturing company that named someone safety officer to create constant awareness of safety in the workplace as a way of going “above and beyond.”

Have you given employment opportunities to veterans, people of different socioeconomic backgrounds or people with physical or developmental challenges?

“A small restaurant hired people with developmental disabilities to do work in the kitchen and bus tables. That is a great example of a culture of CSR,” said Graham.

When Graham was co-owner of Maine Roasters Coffee, “it was really important that we had a Down syndrome adult who worked for us. Things like that don’t cost any money, they are neighborly and they are the right thing to do.”

Look at your product sourcing

“Do no harm” applies to the environment. “If you are a responsible business owner, you can have two employees and still establish a culture of CRS because you have relationships, you have vendors, you have to purchase things,” said Graham.

Are the products or ingredients you use responsibly sourced? Such sourcing may cost more — but it can also be a selling point that helps you differentiate your business.

You might even go so far as producing a CSR report, which many larger companies do annually, to highlight your efforts.

Pease recounted this story: “A company in the Pacific Northwest recently acted to protect salmon habitat through cleanup activities and the purchase of FSC [Forest Stewardship Council] certified paper that helps protect forests. By creating a CSR report, they were able to show to the community that they care about what the community cares about. Demonstrating these values in a CSR report that follows standard accounting and reporting processes allows for much higher transparency than a simple advertisement that typically has nothing to back up the claim.”

Volunteer your time

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“We regularly participate in community service projects as a group and offer our employees paid time off for volunteer work.” -Benjamin Luftman (Photo: Benjamin Luftman)

“We regularly participate in community service projects as a group and offer our employees paid time off for volunteer work, both of which are cost-effective ways to exercise social responsibility in ways that provide real benefits to our community beyond donating money to get our name on a plaque,” said Benjamin Luftman, founding partner of law firm Luftman, Heck & Associates in Columbus, Ohio.

“When we do a food donation drive or get together to serve meals at a homeless shelter, those are real people and real families who won’t go hungry that day because of the volunteer work we do.”

Volunteer your services

“One way we [serve our community] is by providing services to low-income people who might otherwise be unable to access the legal system or to obtain the support they need when they encounter legal issues,” said Luftman. “About two-thirds of our clients are from low-income or insolvent households.”

Donate a percent of sales to a charity

Jim Herst, CEO of Perceptive Selling Initiative, Inc., suggested agreeing to donate a percent of sales to a local charity for a weekend or a week. “Have them distribute info on the promotion,” said Herst. Of course, you should advertise it, too.

Herst advised considering a tie-in with a holiday — Toys for Tots in advance of Christmas, a veterans group in advance of July 4, etc.

“If your charitable donations result in added sales revenues, you’ve profited in money as well as spirit,” said consumer psychologist and retail consultant Bruce D. Sanders, author of “Sell Well: What Really Moves Your Shoppers.”

Donate products

As Stenn noted, it doesn’t cost small business owners much to donate products and may even help get rid of excess inventory. Once you donate, “You can totally take advantage of that through social media. It’s a bonus for that organization but also another excuse to get your name in front of people.”

Enlist the organization’s help. “It’s perfectly fine to ask them to take photos or give you info on what happens to those products,” said Stenn.

Partner with a nonprofit

Such a partnership can help establish your brand identity. “If you can say you do great things, others will be interested in partnering with you,” said Yev Marusenko, growth marketing manager for OnTheGrid marketing agency.

Partnering could be a simple as offering your showroom floor or conference room to a nonprofit to hold a board meeting, said Graham.

Stenn, who frequently travels to Bolivia with empty suitcases for her sustainable clothing business, partnered with the Massachusetts nonprofit Reader to Reader. “The guy gave me a pile of books. I brought it to Bolivia the next week — and boom, now we have a whole new social mission. It’s a win-win around and didn’t cost me a dime.”

Also, consider joining a nonprofit board. “I participate with three organizations,” said Red Beach Advisors’ McKenzie. “Small businesses and companies are able to promote their business, network within the community, bring visibility to an important cause and visibility to the ethical standards of the business.”

Become a B Corporation

“A B Corp is a relatively new type of corporation that focuses on solving social and environmental problems by making a commitment to doing work that positively affects people and the planet,” said Luftman, whose law firm, which employs about 30 people, is a certified B Corp. “To become certified, a company must meet a high standard of corporate social responsibility,” said Luftman.

“For the cost of filing some paperwork, becoming a B Corp is an affordable way to influence and change a company’s culture. As a B Corp, the idea of serving our community becomes part of our company fabric.”

Stenn’s company, KUSIKUY, is also a B Corp. “We regularly engage in creating opportunities for others — with volunteer work, donations, partnerships, etc. This benefits us, too — with free work, advocacy, customer loyalty and positive press.”

Weave CSR into your company fabric

Above all, CSR should be more than a publicity stunt. “You’re not just doing it so you can make a buck. You have to have authenticity, too,” said Stenn.

Taking one baby step at a time is fine — everything needs to start somewhere. But ultimately CSR should become part of your business’ mission.

To get started, “Choose something you care about. Then it’s easier because it’s probably something you’re already networked with anyway,” said Stenn.

“You just never know where things are going to go.”

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