The Business Case for Doing Good

With only 3 weeks left in my internship at ABC, I'm starting to change direction a bit. The first 6-7 weeks really centered around time-sensitive deliverables like rolling out the employee product donation campaign and launching an internal corporate giving awareness program. As these efforts begin to wind down, I've been able to spend more time on one of my most exciting summer projects: building the case for branding corporate giving at ABC. As soon as I found out about this project I was excited to tackle it. I'm really interested in marketing and how brands convey certain messages, so thankfully this week I was able to get started. As I dove deeper into my research and read more about the power of brands in articulating a company's social agenda (and I must say, many thanks to Cone for providing some really terrific data), I started doing a lot of thinking not just about branding but about corporate giving and corporate social responsibility in general. My charge was (and still is) to build the case for branding. But somewhere along the way this week it turned into building the case for doing good.

Sometimes at ABC we walk a delicate line in terms of the purpose of our corporate giving program: are we giving back because it makes us feel good? Because it's the right thing to do? Because our employees are asking for it? Or because it ultimately impacts our bottom line? Often it feels like the programs we're promoting (employee donations of product and time, especially) are meant as engagement tools or as a way to do something out of the goodness of our hearts, and not because there is a strategic business reason. Although I like to believe that people want to give back and that "doing the right thing" is everyone's responsibility, even I understand that any corporate philanthropy program must have some sort of impact on business outcomes in order to recieve the support and funding it needs to succeed long-term.

This week I was lucky to have a conversation with David Almy, partner at ADC Partners, a sustainability and cause marketing firm in San Francisco, CA. I had gotten in touch with Dave to pick his brain about the role of brands in corporate giving programs, and he was nice enough to share some terrific ideas with me (and raise some really thought-provoking questions). One of the things that stuck out most in my mind from our conversation was the idea that both "philanthropy" and "brand" are very nebulous terms that are difficult to measure and quantify.

But therein lies the rub, Dave said. In business, everything is about measurement and impact -  and any company (and especially any CFO) that's going to buy into a corporate giving program will need to understand how it all connects to the bottom line. Unfortunately, these days it's just not so easy to wrap your arms around the impact of your corporate giving program (Funny enough, in a perfect example of the stars aligning this week, I also happened to meet Farron Levy, President of True Impact - a Boston-based firm that's developed tools to help companies measure the ROI of their corporate citizenship programs! From what I hear about True Impact, Farron is really one of the leaders in this kind of measurement and surely one to watch).

For Dave's part, he suggested I look at the customer lifecycle and consider how these kind of programs can go beyond employee engagement and move into customer satisfaction and purchase loyalty (afterall, happy employees beget happy customers, right?). This idea alone has given me food for thought and I've spent the time since my conversation with Dave considering how I can weave this into my branding project.

One other important point to mention from my talk with Dave: I've been doing a lot of thinking about companies with CSR or philanthropy programs and looking at which ones had these kinds of social agendas written into their DNA "at birth" (Seventh Generation, for instance) versus those companies that have built their programs up over time (there are lots of them). I asked Dave about this and whether he thought integrating this kind of social responsibility into everyday business from the get-go had anything to do with the success of that company's program. Dave didn't seem to be so sure, and to answer my question he gave me two examples.

The first is, whose founder Marc Benioff very clearly had a vision for how he wanted to give back to the community through donations of money, product and time. If you don't yet know about the 1% program and the Foundation, this is one to read up on and a great example of this kind of thinking being embedded in an organization from the beginning.

On the other hand, Dave pointed to Clorox as an example of a newly "converted" company; that is, one that's seeing firsthand that involvement in CSR and sustainability can really have an impact on the bottom line (even if this kind of agenda wasn't built into the fabric of the company from the start). Although it has received some criticism fom staunch environmentalists, Clorox's Green Works line of household cleaners has done incredibly well, especially with young moms who want to do good things for their families but don't necessarily want to pay extra. Throw in Clorox's recent acquisition of Burt's Bees and their new Brita Filter for Good campaign and all of a sudden you've got a company who's quickly learned that doing good can be good for business.

This is a relevant debate for me a for a couple of reasons:

1) because I want to figure out how to help ABC "become" a Clorox

2) because eventually I want to create my own for-profit social venture (thus mixing business and giving back).

Although I'm not yet ready to go out on my own and start my own business, in an interesting twist I'm pleased to say that my mom Janice is. For 30 years my mom owned The Bead Shop, a Bay Area bead store with a global reach and a local community impact strategy. Through donations of gift certificates, products, and cash, my mom's business supported organizations in the Bay Area for decades. Unfortunately The Bead Shop closed its doors in August of 2008, and since then my mom has been crafting a new business strategy. And like Seventh Generation, my mom wants her business to have a social agenda from Day One. In fact, she's being very honest about her commitment to this kind of giving back, and I couldn't be more proud. I hope you'll take a moment to read about her ideas and support her work as she creates a new business at Way to go, mom!

Overall it was a very thought-provoking and energizing week, with lots of questions and ideas racing around in my head. And I know I've thrown a lot at you in this post. But I hope it's made you think about what kind of social contract a business might have with its community. When you see companies with philanthropy or CSR programs, do you trust them more? What makes them seem genuine to you as opposed to just a marketing ploy? And does the presence of those programs make you want to spend your money with them over their competitors? I'm very curious to hear your thoughts!