A lot goes into a consumer’s decision process — quality, location, how a product or service solves a problem — and at least 90 percent of Americans are more likely to support a brand that backs social causes.
The first reason to line up your business’ community engagement — also referred to as community involvement or investment — strategy is because it’s simply the right, ethical thing to do, says Alan Cantor, a Connecticut-based consultant to nonprofits and philanthropists. The idea of a return on investment for supporting community is relatively new in our data-driven world, he says. “You should help the community because it’s part of what you do.”
But when you help charities, there are byproducts that can benefit your business. One of the major benefits is that being involved helps raise your profile and helps customers understand what their dollar supports—and may be the deciding factor between going with your business or someone else’s.
“I know an organization that focused on the arts. They got their name on the new wing of the theater. Every time a ticket is sold, it’s sold with the name of that auditorium on it,” says Cantor. That donation was a win-win for both.
Getting involved is also a way to make meaningful connections in the community. Cantor uses the example of an accounting firm in his town that takes an active role in supporting local nonprofits. “It’s really raised the visibility of that organization,” he points out. “I think it’s built a lot of trust for them. I think they get a lot of business because they are the community leaders.”
Community engagement activities also help with your work culture — especially when employees have a say in where the efforts and dollars go. “I think it gets them through the tougher times. It helps a lot with staff retention and staff satisfaction,” Cantor says. “There are all these studies about what makes employees happy — money is usually not at the top of the list. It’s the relationship with their supervisor, their belief in the organization, and the sense that they’re contributing. I think a good CI (Charitable Investments) program helps with all of those things.”
Cantor says that some business owners leave the charity decisions up to a committee of employees. “That gets people very excited. It gives them a lot of ownership. It’s good for employee morale.”
BUILDING AND EVALUATING YOUR PROGRAM
Cantor says the best way to start a community engagement program is to “start small and go deep.” Learn as much as you can about a cause, or pick an organization you already know and trust. “Rather than a scattershot approach, try to focus on one or two organizations, or one or two causes. Start small but try to make significant contributions.”
Communicate meaningfully with the charities you’re supporting to find out what they actually need. A company might say, “We’re going to give all of our employees one afternoon off a year to go and do something,” which looks great as a photo op, Cantor says, but may not make an impact when the nonprofit has more pressing needs.
Cantor recalls a prominent company that set up a seven-year community development grant for nonprofits, but the way it was structured was problematic for the organizations. “The company was so prominent and high profile, people felt that they should go to the meetings, they should participate. Then they resented all the time involved.”
Small businesses that do community engagement well have someone on the board of the organization, Cantor says. They have volunteer days so that the staff and the nonprofit employees learn about each other and integrate. “They become real partners. As they grow, they can do that with more organizations,” Cantor says. But when you lend an employee to an organization, it’s also important to not create a “volun-told” situation, and that the employee actually wants to be there and isn’t missing out on critical career milestones. “They’re probably not going to be terribly effective on that board if they don’t really want to do it,” Cantor says.
Also, it’s helpful to develop specific criteria for what you’ll support — not only so you can make more of an impact, but so you can say no more easily. “It keeps them from giving out a whole lot of $200 checks that don’t really matter,” emphasizes Cantor. “It keeps them from getting pestered. It gives them a little higher profile.
Another thing to remember is that there are some very deserving—but decidedly “unsexy” causes — that could benefit from a business’ support. Cantor says it’s easier for an animal shelter to get support than a homeless shelter or drug rehab center because businesses don’t like to be associated with negative imagery they come with.
“Some very important organizations are overlooked because they’re just not marketable,” Cantor says, “One of the challenges I have is seeing how corporations and companies can match what ‘sells’ with what really makes a difference in what the community need is.”
“Speak to people. Ask them what they want. Don’t tell them.”