What makes a good social engagement program?

Do you feel like you need meaning in your life? Something bigger than simply making money and making it in the corporate world? Or does your stomach hurt every time you see someone begging or witness any sort of social injustice, only to start thinking once again that you wish you could fix all that?

If you can relate to this, you might want to know that you are not alone. There’s a growing urge among business owners and people in general for social engagement and contribution to the greater good.  Entrepreneurs seem to feel the need to make things better in their communities. Hence, there’s an increasing interest in the paths to meaningful social engagement.

As a consultant on philanthropic endeavours and social impact, I often get asked by my clients about the elements of a good social engagement programme. While there’s no one simple answer as it depends on your business model, industry you are in, whether B2B or B2C, etc. all good social engagement programmes have several main features in common that make them sustainable and meaningful.

If you, like my clients, feel like you want to get engaged in solving fundamental societal issues through your business, then here’s what you need to know about robust corporate social engagement programmes:

Social & Economic results go hand in hand

This might be the most important pre-requisite to a well-working social engagement programme because it means that your social impact is directly tied to your business results. What it does is, it motivates you and your employees to do your best as a business so you are able to contribute more. The better you do, the more you give and the more motivation there is to do even better. By tying your economic results with your social impact, you also give a reason to your customers to choose you over somebody else. In other words, it gives you an edge. It’s no surprise that TOMS Shoes has established itself as an exemplary when it comes to social entrepreneurship. The company is built around the one-for-one concept where for each pair of shoes bought, one is donated to someone in need. Clients realise that by simply purchasing a pair from TOMS Shoes they are helping someone, and employees understand that the more they sell, the more people will be helped. Many other companies have followed the same example and donate for every item sold. Among them – Pedigree (selling dog food), Yoobi (selling school supplies), Twice as Warm (selling clothes), Warby Parker (selling glasses), and many more.

Social Initiative somehow relates to your business

The best social engagement programmes are the ones that somehow relate to what you do as a business. Why? Well, because your own clients perceive you as experts when it comes to what you offer and thus as somebody who understands any issues related to that. A good social engagement programme is one that gets both your employees and customers excited about your bigger purpose. But how could they be excited if they don’t understand the link between what you do as a business and what you do for society. You need to be careful here because if people can’t make sense of it, they tend to assume that you are not genuine in your efforts and you only engage in this particular social issue because you have to engage with something social as a business. For example, Magna – a car parts maker from the States embarked on creating an organic commune to promote healthy living. Thus, the company spent millions to build Magnaville, an organic farm for evacuees from the Kathrina hurricane, where community service was to be exchanged for living. The project was a huge failure, mostly due to the fact that nobody (neither the evacuees nor the surrounding communities) bought into the concept partly because nobody truly understood the connection between a car manufacturer and organic farming.

Social Impact is measurable 

It is hard to stay motivated about the difference you make if you are unsure as to whether you do make a difference and how much of a difference you make. That is to say that there must be a system in place that measures how many people’s lives your organisation has been able to touch. In the above mentioned one-for-one examples it is easy, as obviously the amount of sales you make, that’s also the amount of people you’ve helped. But if you decide to go for a model different than the one-for-one, it might be a bit more complicated.  If you’ve decided to partner with a non-profit that takes care of the good doing on your behalf, whether you volunteer or you donate time or services, make sure that they have a system in place that allows them to track the results. It needs to demonstrate how your contribution translates into impact in terms of numbers. The same applies if you decide to take an initiative / cause in your own hands. Having a results tracking system in place is essential as you need to keep both your employees and clients informed (and thus excited) about the difference you make. Otherwise, it might feel like you are wasting time and resources.

Both employees & customers are engaged

No surprise here. Whatever your cause is, you would normally need buy in from both your employees and your customers for your social engagement programme to be a success. Employees, especially in the reality of today when people need meaning in their lives more than ever, will be incredibly loyal and will do their best in helping you when they themselves feel excited and proud of your social efforts. So if you’ve set your mind on an initiative, make sure you get feedback from your employees and see how they feel about it. The same applies to the general public and your customers in particular. As mentioned earlier, they need to understand why you do what you do first of all. Then, make sure you give them the chance to contribute themselves – either by volunteering or by spreading the word on Social Media (and outside of it) or in any other way that will allow them to be actively involved. I’ve spoken about this before but engagement is essential. It creates that buzz and community around your cause that makes it successful. Patagonia, the outdoor apparel company, for example are doing incredibly well, business-wise mostly due to the fact that they are doing great  in their social mission to reduce consumerism and preserve the environment. What they do is, they create great initiatives that everybody is proud to be a part of and through which they engage with their customers and give them the chance to set an example for other people too. It’s a win-win.

There’s an endless list of failed corporate social initiatives and if there’s something we can learn from them it would be that first of all, you need to be genuine in your intentions and efforts and your customers need to understand that, and second of all your social mission needs to be interwoven into your business model and strategy with the right tools and mechanisms. Otherwise, it is all a waste of time, effort and resources.

If you want to know more about creating a sustainable social engagement programme that is meaningful and robust, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I would be happy to chat to you and help you create and integrate a social programme that is beneficial both for your business and for society. You can get in touch with me, Paul Davis, here.

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