How to make sure the public understands your social engagement is genuine?

The issue of corporate sustainability and social engagement is persistently growing in popularity. Long has passed the time when businesses could ignore it and when there were only expectations towards the large multinational companies.

While it all started with governmental pressure and regulatory changes that forced companies to act more sustainably and report on their activities, the stakes are much higher today. It is no longer about the pressure from sanctions that companies are facing if they do wrong. It is the general public of consumers, employees and investors that require them to do right.

And it is not merely about companies reducing their carbon print, air pollution or energy waste, it is about companies engaging actively in solving social problems such as poverty, decease, water shortage, etc.

Corporate social engagement is now becoming a function of businesses, large and small alike, in all sorts of industries. In many cases for the most part CSR rankings attract huge public attention and consequently could be detrimental to the corporate image or alternatively could boost the brand name.

Many of these rankings seem unclear in terms of the measurement methodology employed or the criteria applied yet they do play a crucial role in the public perception of various businesses.

It is thus no surprise that a large amount of companies at best do just about enough so as not to attract negative attention or so much as to be perceived as socially engaged.

What some businesses are only beginning to realise now however is that these bare minimums are becoming increasingly insufficient. Customers today are more educated, employees are more demanding and investors understand the impact that the social side of business has on a company’s image and prospects.

The smarter businesses out there are thus starting to incorporate genuine social effort into their operations and strategies. So how do you tell who are only doing it for public attention and who actually make an impact? And if you were a business, how do you tell a compelling story about the impact you are making without making it look like marketing.

Here’s a few pointers to consider when talking about genuine corporate social engagement:

Impact vs. Numbers

As Michael Porter and Mark Kramer point out in their paper “Strategy and Society” when they speak of the superficial social engagement, “Philanthropic initiatives are typically described in terms of dollar or volunteer hours spent but never in terms of impact”. However, what the general public increasingly cares about is the impact indeed, not the investment made monetary or time wise. Thus if you are genuinely seeking to make a difference and are making an impact, talk about the results of your efforts as confirmation of what you do which is meaningful.

Popular Causes vs. Meaningful Causes

Oftentimes in order to get more public attention, companies get engaged in causes that are “hot” so to speak when these are not even distantly related to the industry the company is in or the skills and resources they have. It just doesn’t make sense. Companies that actually want to contribute in a meaningful way focus on making their contribution optimal and that is often directly related to employing the skills and resources they have at their disposal being in the business they are in. In other words, with genuine social engagement there should be some connection, even if indirect, between what business the company is in and what social issues it engages in.

Money vs. Involvement

Most businesses that truly want to leave a legacy and help change somebody’s life understand that it is not just about money. Clearly, being able to make a difference requires some funds but the human factor in terms of advice, know-how and skills is just as important. Thus, businesses that strive to make an impact don’t simply donate money, they proactively seek and initiate channels, models and initiatives to make sure their resources are put the best use; and this is not simply just about providing volunteer hours to a worthy cause.

Advertising Spend vs. No Advertising

Years ago the tobacco giant Philip Morris spent $75 million on charitable contributions and then another $100 million on advertising campaigns to make sure the world knows about it. When you realise a company spends more on advertising than on giving, it does make you wonder how genuine the intentions are. It is one thing to tell a story on your website or share achievements on the philanthropy end with your social media community, and completely different to spend millions on advertising about what you allegedly did for society.

Indeed people today care about genuine social engagement and any effort to make the superficial and mediocre seem real are generally wasted. In the interconnected world of today, full of cynicism and access to information about companies’ practices readily available, consumers easily tell the difference. They want to see genuine effort, not PR or CSR directors posing for a photo at charity dinners. They want to know about the results, not to read reports on money and volunteer hours spent. And they want to hear stories about people whose life has been changed, not plain numbers of meals donated.


If you would like to incorporate or develop further your social element in your business and make a real difference through what you do for a living, please don’t hesitate to touch base with me. As a business consultant specialising in incorporating social impact into businesses and with extensive experience in a variety of industries, I will be happy to help you grow your business but also your social impact in a genuine way that makes sense for your business and the worthy cause you wish to support. You can get in touch with me, Paul Davis, here.



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