Being Authentic: Whether to Involve Your Company in Social Causes, and How

Face it. Your company taking a stand on a social issue will not yield a perfect result. Commitment to a social cause is to mingle with others who are imperfect and who, in some way, for just or unjust reasons, offend someone else. No person or organization is perfect.

If your organization does not take a stand on a just cause, does it condone the evils of this world? Isn’t it wrong for your business to only care about profit? Don’t young consumers want to know a company’s position on every issue?

These difficult questions have become commonplace. At the top of an organization full of employees who care about a lot of things, you have to decide: how much should we speak out to make the world a better place, and is that better than keeping our heads down and doing the work we exist for? ?

For CEOs in this position, there is a two-word rule to use here. This takes a bit of unboxing, but can be invaluable in guiding your decisions: Be authentic.

Be true to your organization’s place in this world, its history, its culture and its people. By virtue of its core business, your organization is already effecting positive social change, and you can link your social cause decision-making to it. Your organization, indeed, has a moral compass, and within its composition are the instructions on how to position it correctly.

For years, Brawny Paper Towels has supported the Wounded Warriors Project, an organization that provides psychological and physical support to American veterans. In 2013, the company asked its customers to define “hard” and donated for each submission of text, photos or videos answering the question.

TOMS shoes donated one pair of shoes to children in need for every pair sold. It has donated 95 million pairs through 2019. Although TOMS has adjusted its donation practices amid revenue challenges, the company continues to donate a third of its profits to underprivileged children and always speaks directly to consumers who care more about buying from socially responsible companies.

Other examples abound.

Outdoor sports equipment maker REI has a public charity to promote justice, fairness and belonging specifically in the outdoors.

Whole Foods has long been known for its charitable foundations aimed at improving child nutrition and alleviating poverty often linked to hunger.

Cisco Systems focuses its giving on education through its Cisco Networking Academy, helping high school graduates find attractive job opportunities, simultaneously strengthening the universe of young IT network administrators.

These marks and their causes “match” and appear genuine. There’s no reason your own business can’t have such a perfect fit. To get there, consider three things.

Step 1: Recognize the good you are already doing

It’s been half a century since economist Milton Friedman struck at the heart of the issue of corporate social responsibility, arguing that the true “social responsibility” of any business is strictly to “maximize profits for its shareholders”.

Friedman’s landmark essay in the September 13, 1970 edition of The New York Times magazine sets a familiar scene, even as he chides business leaders for believing “that corporations have a ‘social conscience’ and take seriously their responsibilities in when it comes to creating jobs, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution and whatever else the contemporary generation of reformers may say.

We don’t have to fight over whether the pursuit of profit tilts humanity toward greed to focus on that less debatable nugget: what you do in your profit-driven business is essentially good. It is providing a service or product that meets a need. It is improving lives by improving or preserving someone else’s professional or personal life. It’s creating jobs and allowing employees to take on their own activism.

The clothes you’re wearing, the screen you’re staring at, and the prescription drugs you took this morning all happened because an entrepreneur tried to make a profit. You, like your peers in any business, are already an indispensable variable in the giant equation that makes society better.

So, concretely, how does your company solve a problem? And for whom?

The answer to these questions marks your starting point for discerning whether a social cause – you might call it another social cause – is right to pursue.

Step 2: Take a measured view of the landscape

Today, borders are broken. People know what their biggest brands stand for. You know what interests your friends thanks to social networks. There are fewer and fewer secrets about who cares about what and who supports what. Post-Covid, the increase in time spent at home has pushed many people to focus on building more relationships and giving more opinions. And companies are in a new kind of competition over who can care more.

Social pressure is amplified. Depending on your natural level of determination, it may be necessary to refrain from reacting to a powerful Internet video, a handful of animated tweets, employee comments, a nudge from a trusted colleague or a suggestion from a client.

It is difficult to make a fair decision about a charged and nuanced social situation, especially when we are not immune to being personally very aware of it.

The stakes are high, as both underreaction and overreaction could hurt business. You don’t have to be strongly for or against Florida Parental Rights in Education Act to know that Disney paid at both ends of that spectrum earlier this year, first for what many saw as unresponsiveness and then for what many others saw as overreaction. It’s also entirely possible that Disney’s most reasonable and graciously communicated response didn’t save them from losing some level of support.

In such situations, it is perfectly acceptable for a company to look before jumping.

Your organization is not responsible for solving what part of the population sees as social evil, oppressive legislation or even human tragedy motivated by hatred. No matter how badly some people — or even you — feel about a situation, it’s just not fair for your company to be judged if it doesn’t come up with an impossibility: an answer everyone will agree with.

If you are criticized, ask: Is this criticism fair and reasonable? Don’t react, unless your reaction is to let your audience know you’re thinking about the situation. You are moved by it. You care. You will react in a way that is consistent with your company values ​​and you will take great care to have internal discussions to determine the best way to achieve this.

Words like these will not appease everyone. But they’ll speak to your reasonable stakeholders – and that’s the right audience for you right now.

Step 3: Let your true corporate identity shape your action plan

So what is the best course of action for your own organization? Remember that all the answers are already in your corporate identity. Yes, you actually benefit from “inside the box” thinking, just this once.

First, determine how the decision will be made. Who sets the tone? Based on what? Is your business starting great ventures with a brainstorming session? With a C-suite discussion? Is it a more democratic process? Is there a natural forum in which a discussion can take place? If talking about social issues is unfamiliar in your business, don’t add embarrassment by introducing a new process to address it.

Second, frame your internal discussions. These discussions are energetic and sensitive and can easily get out of hand. As a leader, be prepared to stem tangents and keep the conversation centered on 1.) your company’s identity, and 2.) if and how it should address a given cause. That’s it. The closer you get to pairing your business function with a social solution, the better.

And if you don’t see a wedding, maybe the cause you’re talking about isn’t the right one. It’s good too. Not every organization will have something constructive to add to every civic conversation. This could be true even if an employee or stakeholder has a strong personal allegiance to a specific cause. Sometimes being authentic means acknowledging that your organization would be overwhelmed by taking a stand on a social issue.

Finally, consider who is leading. It can be an individual, but more often it will be a team. Unless your company has a senior executive dedicated to social causes, keeping your company’s chosen course of action in front of you will require the same kinds of goal setting, structure, and results analysis that you will help you succeed in your core business.

Most importantly, throughout the process, focus on the right actions. Good words will follow.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “Words may show a man’s spirit, but actions their meaning.”

Don’t get me wrong, your company’s commitment to a social cause doesn’t depend on what you say, or even what one of your chosen charities allows you to say. Although it may involve marketing, this exercise goes far beyond marketing. It’s about meaning, kindness and authenticity. Remember this at all times.


Written by Jordan Buning, President, ddm marketing + communication.
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