From social obligation to impact

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From social obligation to impact

Do your customers and employees care about your company’s commitment to social causes and charitable organizations?  You bet they do!

Below is Cathy’s column from the October 22 Knoxville News-Sentinel that spells out some trends, patterns and a few suggestions.


Corporate social responsibility is defined as the “economic, legal, ethical and discretionary expectations that society has of organizations at a given point in time.” Ben and Jerry’s was one of the first companies to commit to a defined stance in this regard. As part of their Initial Public Offering in 1985, they created a charitable foundation with an initial gift of 50,000 shares, as well as committing 7.5 percent of the company’s pre-tax profits to philanthropy.

More recent examples include:

• TOMS’ One-for-One program whereby the company donates one pair of shoes for every pair purchased to people in need.
• Apple’s mission to “ask less of the planet,” whereby they ask IT partners to embrace renewable energy, and their packaging is manufactured with 99 percent recycled paper products.
• Walt Disney Company’s “VoluntEARS” program resulting in their employees donating 2.9 million hours of service to kids and families in need since 2012.
• Starbuck’s commitment to providing one million coffee trees to farmers, as well as its plans to hire 10,000 refugees and 25,000 veterans over the next five years.

Company executives are realizing the value of “walking the walk” in demonstrable ways. They are more willing than ever to put a stake in the ground and to publicly declare their commitment to their mission and to their philanthropic priorities.

We are finding these same trends to be true with our own corporate clients. Rather than giving token amounts of money or time to many different non-profit organizations, they are selecting a few that align with their priorities and committing larger donations over longer periods of time. Their goal is to make a difference, and they can do that best by truly partnering with like-minded organizations and providing sustained support.

Society now expects corporations to voluntarily participate in helping to solve societal problems, whether they had anything to do with causing them or not. Increasingly, large corporations are putting goal-specific sustainability programs in place, regardless of the political environment. For many of them, sustainability has also become a criterion for working with their chosen corporate partners and even for winning new business.

There is also a shift from “corporate social responsibility” to “social impact.” This branding shift reflects a growing consensus that the key driver for a company’s philanthropic outreach should not just be a generic standard of responsibility, but rather, a unique, measurable and positive impact that they can have on societal issues or problems.

Numerous studies have shown that consumers would rather buy from socially responsible companies and that employees would rather work for companies which contribute to the greater good. This is especially true of Millennials, three-quarters of whom (in a recent survey) said they would take a pay cut in order to work for a socially responsible company. Additionally, 88 percent of them said that their job is more fulfilling when their employers provide an opportunity for them to make an impact. They want to be co-creators and actual facilitators of their company’s responsibility/sustainability solutions.

Smart, committed companies also recognize the importance of story-telling, and they focus not only on doing meaningful, measurable work in their communities, but also on telling interesting, multi-dimensional and non-self-serving stories about who they are, what they believe in and why social impact is core to their identity.

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