There is little doubt that sustainability provides business value, particularly when those initiatives are part of the core business strategy. It certainly worked for Unilever. The company has provided the world with substantial evidence that embedding sustainability into the organization’s strategy, brand, and innovation drives business growth. Unilever’s ‘Sustainable Living’ brands accounted for half of the company’s growth in 2014 and grew at twice the rate of the rest of the business.
An increasing number of companies are following suit, recognizing that operating with purpose improves their business results. The increase in the number of companies that produce sustainability reports is evidence of this trend. In 2015, 81 percent of Fortune 500 companies published sustainability reports, up from just 20 percent of companies reporting in 2011, according to a report released by the Governance & Accountability Institute in June.
Amidst all the CSR reporting and PR buzz around sustainable brands, we see the corporations that have the greatest impact, like Unilever, have found a way for their CSR initiatives to make both their business and communities stronger.
“Companies understand the essential role communities play in the health of their business, and by integrating societal investment into their core strategies, CSR becomes a win-win for community and business,” said Carmen Perez, Director of Data Insights, CECP.
Here are three best practices we recommend based on our work with Corporate Philanthropy programs of all shapes and sizes:
1.Align your CSR strategy to specific business goals.
The Starwood Foundation was a great example of the power of tying corporate philanthropy programs objectives to specific business goals. Doing so improved the company’s business and the surrounding communities.
The Starwood Foundation’s signature program was focused on workplace readiness and was designed to support charitable partners who prepare underserved individuals for obtaining and retaining employment within their community. The impact the Foundation had in workplace readiness also had a positive effect on their ability to identify and hire qualified candidates in those communities.
“We learned from our philanthropic investments where there were workforce gaps. We applied that knowledge to ensure we were playing our part by hiring from the talent pool we were helping to create,” said Kristin Meyer, Associate Director of Community Partnerships.
2. Stories and qualitative observations are just as important as data to communicate impact.
Companies often assume that impact must be communicated with numbers—percentages, hours, dollars, increases, decreases, etc. Pictures, videos, narratives and other qualitative information are also effective tools when it comes to communicating impact.
“The way a worker’s entire life transforms when she is paid a fair wage is incredibly powerful—and it’s something that is best communicated through her personal story. Your audiences want to hear these stories, and those who are personally affected want to share them,” said Susan McPherson, CEO, McPherson Strategies.
An American chain of bakery-café restaurants has done an exceptional job of collecting stories that reflect their values within their brand messaging. Through their donation program, they donate unsold bakery and bread items to nonprofits and organizations that aid hunger relief. This simple premise of donating unused product has created countless unique stories of their community impact. Their donation program has become synonymous with their brand and has garnered significant press coverage.
3. Don’t just open your checkbook, really partner with nonprofits to get beyond the feel good.
It is crucial to find the right NGO partners and ensure that the programs you implement are manageable and within your budget. Once you find the right partners, go above and beyond your financial contribution to work with them to establish goals, and check in regularly to make sure they’re on track to deliver the intended impact.
For example, a multinational enterprise software company does mid-grant period check-ins. If for some reason a nonprofit isn’t accomplishing its goals, the company steps in to offer to help and, if needed, assigns employees with the right expertise to assist the nonprofit. The company emphasizes the power of partnerships with grantees using education, goal setting and progress tracking to drive success. Final reports on all grants enable the company to communicate impact.
Today we know CSR has the potential to impact market value; increase share price and reduce risk; enhance marketing, sales and brand reputation; reduce staff turnover, lower salary costs, increase productivity and increase employee engagement.
What we anticipate moving forward is the lasting change that will come as brands further integrate purpose-driven initiatives into their businesses. If it’s anything like the success Unilever has achieved, Corporate Giving professionals will see both their communities and their businesses drastically improved.