Seizing CSR Opportunities

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on March 2nd, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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While the corporate world has embraced the value and importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR), the nonprofit world has some catching up to do.  As every nonprofit scrambles to ensure its viability, they would be wise to understand CSR (a company-supported program that demonstrates a corporation’s commitment to helping and supporting the communities in which it and its employees reside), as well as its short-term costs and potential benefit and the definite long-term benefit.

Over the past 35 years, corporate programs have morphed, spawning the CSR of today. The generally accepted innovator is American Express’s 1983 support for restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  Considered the origin of modern cause-related marketing, a term they coined and copyrighted, AMEX donated $1.7 million to the project, giving one penny each time an Amex card was used and $1 for each new credit card.  Use of the card use increased 27 percent and applications for cards grew by 45 percent – a pretty good ROI.

Today CSR is a corporate necessity for being seen as a “good”, caring business.  This shift from optional to mandatory had been happening on its own, but was, undoubtedly, pushed by the rise, and dominance of millennials in the workplace and the consumer market.  Studies such as one by Deloitte, Cone Communications, regularly show that employees want to work at companies that are good corporate citizens and consumers want to buy products from those same companies.  This has forced companies to get more focused and strategic in how they fulfill that promise of being civically engaged in their community.

Today, companies have moved from having one offering in their CSR toolbox to providing an array of options, hoping to draw more employees in, participating in more than one kind of CSR programming.  This can range from supporting employee volunteerism or preparing, and maybe even matching, those employees (especially current and up and coming leaders) who serve or want to serve on nonprofit boards.

Employees can select a skilled volunteer option, where they use their employee expertise on behalf of a nonprofit, an unrelated volunteer experience, where they may build a playground or paint a building, to serving on a nonprofit board.  Employees may chose to do these volunteer experiences on their own, or as group effort, even planning a team building experience, all the while making themselves feel good, feel better about their employers and helping to make their company look good.

Many of these companies, extend additional support to beyond using employees as their emissaries, adding financial support with a “dollars for doers” program, providing non-financial capacity building services to nonprofits, or partnering with a nonprofit on a CRM campaign, as examples.

Unfortunately, though, too few nonprofits are aware of CSR, or, if aware, don’t know how to take advantage of the possibilities.  The easiest place to begin is by brainstorming meaningful volunteer opportunities for a solo volunteer (skilled or unskilled) and for a group.  Be sure that the brainstorming takes into account what the organization actually has the capacity to do, as the last thing you want to do is provide a poorly executed and valueless volunteer experience.  Then, pick one or two, or more, if you have the capacity to handle more, of the best ideas and fully explicate them, in a written form that can be shared with corporations and potential volunteers.

Explain what, exactly, the volunteer experience would entail—the work, the clients with whom the volunteer(s) might interact, the time commitment (how many hours, once and done, recurring), the schedule, location and other logistics.  Describe both the intangible feel good things and the tangible benefits, such as honing current skills and developing new ones to use at their paid job, and expanding networks.  Then, rather than waiting to be approached (as you might be waiting a very long time), track down those responsible for community outreach/relations/CSR (whatever name it goes by) in the corporations in your footprint and start building those relationships.

Your planning and work—and, yes, costs–should not stop there.  And, yes, it costs to host volunteers:  staff time to plan the opportunity, to ensure that the opportunity is as well executed as possible and to follow-up with the volunteers to learn how the experience was and what you could do to make it even more satisfying.

In addition to lending you their employees for a one-time event or on an on-going basis, companies are hoping that you will convert these employee volunteers to your individual donors.  So, plan that strategy, making it one that is more tactful than that used by too many colleges and universities who welcome their newly minted alumni as their latest pool of donors, with some even asking for those gifts while folks are still sweating in their caps and gowns.  But when the appropriate amount of time has lapsed, you want your tactics ready.

But, before you reach out to these corporate community relations people, consider whether you also want to go with a request for a very specialized employee:  someone who wants to be a nonprofit board member.  If you do, you must, once again, go prepared.  Be clear about what you are looking for.  Certain areas of expertise? Specific geographic areas? Demographics?  Go with a parallel set of written guidelines for this volunteer position:  the job, the expectations, the conditions, the WIFM*, etc.  And, again, make sure you are ready to deliver when candidates start appearing.  Have that on-boarding process clearly nailed down, beginning with what you want interested candidates to submit (i.e., resume, completed questionnaire, etc.).

Yet it isn’t all just about people.  Purist or not, there are, through CSR, cause-related marketing opportunities for nonprofits of all sizes with businesses of all sizes.  Just because you aren’t a national or international nonprofit and don’t have an American Express headquarters in your backyard, doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for you.  Think of those nonprofits that get a restaurant or a store to donate a portion of their daily proceeds to them for a day, a week, over the course of month.  That’s cause-related marketing:  a financial bonus for the company (increased sales for that day/week/whatever and increased awareness in perpetuity) and a financial benefit to the nonprofit.  If the marketing venture was a success, it will be easy to ask for a repeat, and develop an on-going relationship.  Low upfront investment for both halves of the partnership for a very nice, potential return.  There are plenty of opportunities for community-based businesses and area nonprofits to engage in productive partnerships.

Corporations are hungry to demonstrate their participation in, and give back to, the communities that are home to them and their employees.  You can sit back and wait, or you can bring your opportunities to them.



*What’s in it for me?

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.


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