Community engagement and intentionality
Did you get a request recently to sponsor a local nonprofit’s annual gala? Did you want to respond with more than a simple “no thank you?” However, their work did catch your attention, and you wish they had asked you a few months ago. Did you learn about a serious community issue on Twitter that really got you going? You want to do something and you feel that your business has some responsibility to get involved, but you’re wary of a knee-jerk reaction and of diving into something without a plan. You’re a savvy business person, but you hesitate when it comes to giving back to the community. Don’t worry, it’s a complicated subject, and you’re not alone.
One sign that a business is demonstrating leadership in community involvement is an intentional focus on helping “to define needs, set direction and initiate meaningful change around community/societal issues.” This is the first of seven “Standards of Excellence in Corporate Community Involvement” developed by the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship. They provide a framework for companies acting as forces for good in their local community, region and even globally.
Businesses have a significant role to play in the welfare of our communities. They have resources that can be invested in causes, programs or initiatives that affect both customers and employees. They have a place in the community from which they can spread the word or speak out on critical topics. Supporting nonprofits, working to address a particular social issue or providing ways for employees to connect with the community in meaningful, authentic ways are noble aims. But this should not be left to an ad hoc approach or periodic investment; it must be framed within the context of a sound business strategy.
More than just being “nice”
Mark Shamley, President and CEO of ACCP, the national association for professionals who work in corporate philanthropy, said in a recent blog that a corporation’s engaging in effective social responsibility isn’t just about a corporation’s being “nice.” It is about engaging the forces that affect its market, its employees and its operating resources. In short, it’s not just nice, it’s a critical business function.
Regardless of the size of your business - small family-owned shop, mid-sized professional firm or large corporation - you should give community engagement some thought. What issues are important to you as well as your customers? Do you understand the values and needs of your employees? You should be attentive to how those issues and values intersect with those elements that drive a community’s sustainable welfare.
Take advantage of opportunities to learn about critical societal issues affecting your customers, marketplace and employees. Nonprofit organizations are often encouraged to join their local Chamber of Commerce to help them understand the issues faced by businesses in their region. Likewise, as local businesses, we must take a similar approach and learn more about social and community issues. For example, this fall’s Nonprofit Forum hosted by the Arlington Chamber is just such an opportunity through which we can learn about regional nonprofits and explore real examples of productive partnerships in action.
Take those important first steps
Whether it’s philanthropic support, sponsorship, in-kind giving or even public advocacy, this type of engagement takes work and intentionality. It requires a strategic approach that’s integrated into your ongoing work and tied to your company’s capacities and expertise. The approach must be understood by senior management and junior-level employees – and there should be opportunities for both to get involved.
Start by making a simple plan that focuses on what you want to achieve with a community engagement strategy. There are many tools, consultants and resources out there that can provide guidance and examples of best practice along the way. All possible business objectives might not be accomplished with your first attempt at corporate philanthropy, but it’s important to take those first steps, evaluate the results and adjust accordingly.
Working together, the business community and nonprofits can have an incredible and lasting impact on our community and on the issues that affect us all. Let’s get started!