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General

Social Responsibility and the Mutual Good

Regardless of your beliefs on how businesses ought to operate, if they don’t grow or make money, they’re a failing business. It’s how our economy works: businesses, big and small, employing people, producing goods, and pouring wealth back into our communities. But money can’t be the only thing businesses care about — today, we expect a level of social responsibility from businesses. Social responsibility comes in many forms, from corporate donations to charities and public services, to internal fundraising campaigns for local disaster relief. Corporate charity and fundraising isn’t simply an expense for businesses, though. When done strategically, social responsibility can be leveraged as a marketing tool, often referred to as cause marketing. Cause marketing aims to promote a business through its charitable work, and can be an effective way to generate positive press about brands big and small.

Being the Good Guys

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Like it or not, consumers don’t just like it when companies demonstrate social responsibility. They expect, maybe even demand it — perhaps with good reason. The concept of an evil corporation is well-engrained in pop culture and the public consciousness. Corporations past and present have had their hand in some pretty unsavoury if not downright disturbing events. From a cynical point of view, one can see how cause marketing could help blunt criticisms levelled against the Wal Marts and Chicitas of the world. Each ‘good’ act they can advertise diminishes the appearance of the various ‘bad’ acts.

On a less cynical note, cause marketing is an opportunity for good companies to reinforce their image as the good guys. Many businesses today, from massive enterprises like Pepsi and Save-on-Foods to small and mid-sized local businesses, use social responsibility to market themselves as a better alternative to their competitors. Today, nearly 90% of consumers simply expect the companies they purchase from and work for to commit to corporate social responsibility.

A Simple Equation

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Let’s get cynical again — or at least cold and calculated. Even if you (or your company) has zero interest in social responsibility, it’s often worth your time, money, and energy to donate to charities, run sustainability initiatives, or commit to other forms of community betterment. First, everyone expects you to. Social responsibility may not set you apart from your competitors, but doing nothing will make you look bad. Second, nearly every kind of business needs to spend a sizeable chunk of their income on marketing — around 10%, on average. The cost of administering any sort of social program can be large, but if done right, it can double as a marketing campaign. Also, many donations are tax-deductible. Come tax time, you may effectively get your money back anyway. Finally, there’s the long game: if you can contribute to positive change in the world, at little immediate cost to your business and with the potential to actually grow your customer base through related marketing efforts, you’re coming out ahead. A better, safer, more sustainable society is a stable one. Stability is good for the bottom line.

How Do I Get in On This?

Social responsibility and cause marketing aren’t techniques exclusive to large organizations. Many small, local charities run events that require sponsorship. Provide a product or service to one of these organizations. In exchange, you’ll get your logo put on their banners, fliers, and other promotional materials. Often, the work you do will be tax exempt. Get a receipt! You could also donate to your local hospital or other public project on behalf of your company, then send out a press release. If that sounds sleazy or underhanded, remember that businesses still have a responsibility to pay their shareholders and maintain job security and competitive wages for their workers. If charity is nothing but a cost, it can hurt the company’s bottom line and jeopardize its success. This is about mutual benefit.

Caveat Emptor…

…Means ‘buyer beware’. Provided you want to be socially responsible for reasons beyond short-sighted marketing efforts, make sure the organizations and charities you donate to/work with are reputable. Many charities spend a great deal on administrative costs, leaving pennies on the dollar for actually doing the work they purport to do. While charities with little administrative overhead aren’t necessarily better (administration is important — reasonable administrative costs ensure that money is being spent effectively), charities that spend excessively on administration often end up funnelling cash to their executives. Be sure you don’t invest in a questionable charity. On some level, you’re tying your fate to theirs — if they’re exposed as fraudulent, at best you’ll look incompetent for investing in them, and at worst, you could end up looking complicit.

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Want to do your research on charities before working with them? Use a tool like Charity Intelligence or Charity Navigator to ensure their reputation is sterling.