Business leaders know that their companies need to give back through volunteering and giving, and they do. But they're not always sure where their companies should give back.
According to Giving USA, 2015 was America's most generous year ever, with corporate giving ($18.45 billion) increasing 3.9 percent (3.8 percent when inflation-adjusted) over 2014 giving. Meanwhile, corporate volunteer programs are becoming an ever-more mandatory employee perk, with employee volunteer participation rates with their company's community efforts continuing to rise to 33% in 2015 from 28% in 2013, according to the 2015 Giving in Numbers survey by CECP. The same survey found that about half of companies saw building trust with consumers and other stakeholders as a goal of their societal engagement programs, which explains why 9 out of 10 top companies offer an employee matching program and 6 out of 10 top companies offer paid-release time volunteer programs.
But company leaders often struggle with the question of how and where to best direct their resources and employee energies. Coalescing efforts behind a single cause allows for a more powerful contribution and, presumably, impact. But employees also need to feel that when they volunteer they're not being voluntold; instead, they must have the freedom to also (or instead) pursue their own cause passions as a part of their corporate volunteerism. This element of choice is directly tied to impact.
Ideally, your company can support both; a unified cause as a part of a coordinated company-wide strategy, as well as causes that are pursued by individual employees.
It can be confusing to define your company's cause direction, but it all starts with your mission and values. Some social impact paths are well-trodden, for example the top cause of education (29% of total corporate giving, according to Giving in Numbers); the second most popular cause of health and social services programs (25% of total corporate giving); and the third top cause, community and economic development programs (13% of total corporate giving).
But these and other noble causes can backfire spectacularly if pursued by a mismatched company in the wrong way. KFC discovered this with their infamous "Buckets for the Cure" campaign that had the unhealthy fast-food company supporting the Susan G. Komen Foundation for cancer research. A Canton, Ohio Wal-Mart got backlash that went viral when it sponsored a food drive for some of the town's needier citizens - which happened to be Wal-Mart employees, underscoring the non-living wages Wal-Mart pays and creating the spectacle of asking some of its underpaid employees to help other underpaid employees. Starbucks got a black eye with its widely mocked Race Together campaign to stimulate action around race relations, a conversation most people decided they didn't want to have before their morning coffee.
A common thread with these cause fails is their perceived inauthenticity, tone deafness and lack of connection between the corporate mission and social cause. Sure, not every company has a brand image that naturally aligns itself with a particular issue (think Patagonia and environmentalism), but you must make choices about your volunteer and giving efforts that don't feel like greenwashing, pinkwashing or other cynical directions.
Here are a few steps to consider when thinking about your social cause investment:
1. Look in the mirror. When it comes to defining your social mission, start with your business mission. Increasingly, we find it helpful when these two are aligned from the start - even if your company makes widgets. Strategic leaders recognize that giving back can be baked right into your corporate DNA, such as with equity pledges, where companies offer a small percentage of their equity to nonprofits. Regardless of your organization's structure, your business mission will help inform the most aligned direction to harness your corporate energies and offer the best opportunities for pro bono volunteering and other engagement.
2. Go on a listening tour. As you consider your mission and values, it's important to get your employees involved so that they feel "heard." Surveys are a common tool to cull employee interests around causes, including where many of them may already be volunteering and giving. Sure, you won't be able to prioritize every cause, but you may be able to find patterns of common interests, which will help when it comes to increasing volunteer participation if you decide to pursue these causes. And even with the many causes that you don't elevate to the corporate level, a volunteer platform like Causecast's will empower employees to pursue many different interests as a part of their volunteer work.
3. Do your research. When it comes to selecting specific nonprofits to ally with or support, tools like Charity Navigator provide insight into organizational history, financial health, accountability and transparency. Make sure that you do your due diligence in assessing how your company can make the biggest impact at the most minimal cost.
4. Get help. America's Charities is an invaluable translator helping companies and nonprofits speak the same language, align expectations and goals and establish relationships destined for success. Guidance from a trusted expert in the nonprofit world can help steer your company to the cause area and nonprofit that is the best possible match.
Charitable giving and volunteering is an essential part of business today. Gallup research has found that when choosing between products of equal value and price, 94 percent of shoppers will choose the brand connected to a social cause. Fifty-five percent of global consumers say they'd pay more for products and services from businesses that advance social and environmental causes. Eighty-eight percent of Americans are interested in hearing about businesses' corporate social responsibility efforts. Much is at stake when it comes to choosing the best causes for your company, so make sure you're approaching this issue with the same kind of careful deliberation as any other important business decision.