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How to Make Your Small Business More Socially Responsible


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What do companies like Zappos, GM, TOMS, Virgin Atlantic, and Google all have in common?

These companies are consistently ranked as some of the best companies in the world to work for, and a large part of their great reputation stems from their social responsibility initiatives.

Whether you work from home or you have a small business, there is a lot you can do to become more socially responsible. In return, your customers and employees will reward your efforts with greater loyalty, higher productivity, and increased sales.

Let’s take a look at what social responsibility is, why it can positively transform your business, and what you need to do to implement a plan to get started.

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What Is Social Responsibility?

Social responsibility is one of those buzzwords that has a slightly different definition everywhere you look.

According to Investopedia, “Social responsibility means that individuals and companies have a duty to act in the best interests of their environments and society as a whole,” while the Cambridge Dictionary defines social responsibility as “the practice of producing goods and services in a way that is not harmful to society or the environment.”

In short, social responsibility (also called corporate social responsibility, or CSR, when the term refers to larger corporations) means caring about other people, and the environment, just as much, if not more, than you care about yourself.

The idea might seem a bit out of place in the business world, where for so long people and the environment have been used as commodities and nothing more. However, these outdated ideas are changing quickly, and now even small businesses are making huge efforts to be more socially responsible.

Businesses Can Benefit From Social Responsibility

Putting time and energy into social responsibility feels good. But let’s face it: You’re a small business owner, which probably means your to-do list never ends, and you don’t get through the day without wearing at least 10 different hats. Can you spend time and energy on social responsibility? Or, for that matter, should you?

The answer is a resounding “yes.” Customers are increasingly demanding that companies become more transparent and committed to giving back. The market is evolving, and the businesses that survive will be those that focus, at least on some level, on doing good in their community. According to an article published in TIME, there are significant business risks to ignoring social responsibility.

Social responsibility is worth your time and energy for a number of different reasons, many of which will lead to higher profits and more committed customers. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits social responsibility has to offer to small businesses.

1. Loyal Customers

 serious girl working on coffeehouse making coffee

Stop and think about how you feel when you purchase a pair of shoes from TOMS, who donates one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair they sell as part of their “One for One” program. Or, think about how it feels when you pick up a latte from Starbucks, who has committed to giving one million coffee trees to farmers as part of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, and who will hire 10,000 refugees worldwide over the next five years, and 25,000 veterans by 2025.

Put simply, you feel pretty good, right? When you shop with a socially responsible business, you know that a small portion of your purchase is going to make the world a little bit better.

An industry brief released by Loyalty360, a customer loyalty think tank, found that social responsibility initiatives can go a long way toward creating emotional bonds with customers, which leads to greater brand loyalty.

2. More Sales

A 2014 survey conducted by Nielsen found that 55% of global online customers say they’re willing to pay more for products and services from companies that are committed to making a positive social and environmental impact.

Amy Fenton, global leader of public development and sustainability with Nielsen, states, “Consumers around the world are saying loud and clear that a brand’s social purpose is among the factors that influence purchase decisions.”

Developing a social responsibility program for your business might require some funding on your end, or it might cost nothing. Either way, if you do have to raise prices to develop initiatives, there’s a good chance your customers won’t blink an eye, as long as you explain why prices are going up.

3. A More Committed Workforce

ethnic coffee farmers are smiling with coffee berries in baskets

Another benefit to increasing your social consciousness is that recruiting becomes much easier. People want to work for companies that care for other things besides a tidy profit and a bottom line, and they’re increasingly looking for jobs that bring a deeper sense of purpose to their lives. If you build a reputation around social responsibility, you’ll find that high-quality resumes pour in when you have an opening.

Additionally, the employees you do hire will be more productive, and work longer, if they feel that their efforts are contributing to a greater good. The 2016 Workforce Purpose Index, a global study on the role of purpose in the workforce, found that employees who worked with purpose had a 20% longer tenure in their role, and were 47% more likely to speak positively about their employer.

According to the Society of Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 2012 report, “HRM’s Role in Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility,” social responsibility initiatives often have a positive effect on morale. The paper’s researchers state, “While the research is unclear whether an organization’s commitment to sustainability leads to higher employee retention, it does have positive effects on employee commitment and job satisfaction.”

In short, doing good helps boost employee engagement and raise productivity, both of which are positives for your business.

4. Greater Competitive Advantage

A study published in the Journal of Business Research found that financial performance and competitive advantage were greater in firms that focused more on social responsibility.

You might also find it easier to secure venture capital funding if social responsibility is part of your business plan. Why? Investors know that customers care about social responsibility, which gives your business a greater chance of survival. It also adds to your own credibility.

How to Develop a Social Responsibility Program

As you can see, customers want to know that your business is helping make the world a better place. But if you’re starting to panic and wonder if you’ve missed the boat, don’t worry. It’s never too late to develop a social responsibility plan that goes deeper than simply making a donation.

1. Understand Your Values

core values written in notebook by a man

Do you know your core values?

Your core values affect everything you do, and every decision you make, whether you realize it or not. Core values are your deepest beliefs that define what’s right and what’s wrong. When you make a decision that goes against your values, you can feel it.

Before you dive into developing a social responsibility plan, it’s important to stop and think about the values that are most important to you. What are the guiding principles you use every day to make good decisions? Write down the three core values that are most important to you. These will be different for everyone, but some examples of core values can include:

  • Integrity
  • Courage
  • Honesty
  • Achievement
  • Diversity
  • Generosity
  • Balance
  • Hard work
  • Self-reliance
  • Kindness
  • Curiosity
  • Respect
  • Dignity
  • Loyalty
  • Persistence
  • Empathy

This is just a small sample of core values. If you’re still not sure what your own core values are, it might be helpful to look at a comprehensive list online (which might contain hundreds of values) and start writing down the ones that resonate with you.

Once you’ve gone thr

ough the list and have at least 10 values written down on paper, look at each of your choices carefully. Stop and think about the times you’ve tried to fulfill each value, and how many times you’ve violated each particular value. Out of these 10, which have you tried hardest to live by? Which values made you feel terrible when you didn’t live up to them?

Narrow your list down to the three values that mean the most to you. This short list represents your core values.

Now that you’ve defined your core values, you can use them to uncover meaningful ways to make a difference in your community. For example, imagine that one of your core values is creativity. Perhaps your business could partner with local schools to raise money to fund art programs or buy art supplies for students.

2. Make Social Responsibility Part of Every Business Decision

According to a paper published in the Journal of Business Ethics, there is a growing sense of discord around corporate social responsibility. The reason? Some companies use social responsibility programs as a marketing ploy to enhance their reputation or appeal to the interests of key stakeholders.

Companies who aren’t truly committed to social responsibility might thrive temporarily, but customers will ultimately discover that their heart isn’t in it. Occasional charity events or annual donations aren’t going to do your business much good; you need to incorporate social consciousness into every decision that you and your team make.

What does this look like? Well, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Before making a decision, look at the implications for your team, your community, and the world at large. Will someone be negatively affected by this decision? If so, what could you do to lessen or even eliminate the negative consequences?

3. Look for Opportunities to Make a Difference

It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in: There are always opportunities to make the world a little bit better. All you have to do is start looking.

For example, look at Virgin Atlantic. Flight attendants collect spare foreign currency from their passengers who are returning home from abroad and donate the money to their partner charity, WE. They raised over $700,000 in 2016 alone.

This is such an easy way to make a difference, and it doesn’t cost the company anything. Someone simply had the idea to collect all that annoying foreign change passengers can’t use once they get back home, and donate it. That’s it. British Airways and several other airlines do the same thing. What started as an absurdly simple idea has become an enormously powerful force for good in the world.

As a small business, you are perfectly positioned to affect your community in a profound way, and your best bet is to start small, with a simple idea, to make a difference. In fact, focusing on one person or one idea at a time allows you to concentrate all your energy in one direction. As your idea gains momentum, you might be surprised at how much good you can do.

So, how can you find opportunities to make a difference?

Look at What People Need
It can feel overwhelming when you start to look for ways to make your community a better place. After all, there are an endless number of ways to get involved. Where do you start?

While it’s important to have a long-term plan, you can take the first step and build momentum by simply looking at what your customers and your community need on a small scale.

Here’s a personal example. When I lived in Detroit, I frequently visited Avalon Bakery, which was close to my neighborhood. In the dead of winter, I would often see homeless men and women in the small lobby, sipping hot coffee and eating a pastry while they warmed up. This little bakery offered a life-saving respite for people who were forced to spend almost every minute outside in the harsh elements. They didn’t advertise what they were doing; they just did it because people needed help.

Today, that little bakery has multiple locations around the city and their breads and cookies are carried by many major markets, including Whole Foods. Yes, they have great bread. But they’re also committed to helping people and making their community better. Their customers noticed, and their business blossomed.

Another great example of a small business making a big difference is Rosetta’s Kitchen in Asheville, NC. Rosetta’s Kitchen asks customers to pay for food on a sliding scale, depending on what they can afford. Anything over $6 allows the restaurant to give meals to people who can’t pay anything. They view food as a basic human right, and by asking a bit more from customers who can afford it, they’re able to feed everyone who passes through their doors.

Both of these small businesses are making a difference in their communities in very simple ways. They saw an unmet need, or an injustice they wanted to fix, and they found a way to do something about it. That’s what you need to do: Look at what people need and find a simple way to help.

Stop Doing Harm
Next, look for harmful or damaging things you could stop doing. For example, does your business generate a lot of paper waste? How could you reduce this waste, or recycle what you’re throwing away? What could you do to reduce your carbon footprint? Is your business harming anyone or anything in your community, or in the world at large? What could you do to stop?

Most businesses could find several practices or habits in their operations that do harm, on some level, to the environment or to their community. Take a close look, and do your best to eliminate them.

Focus on Your Team

business team meeting

Another way to make a positive difference in your community is to look at your team. Are you paying them fairly for the work they do? Is there any way you could pay them more, or offer more benefits? How could you make their work environment healthier or more pleasant?

Give your team members a chance to make a difference. Find a way to give them one paid day every quarter to volunteer at the charity of their choice. This is a great morale-booster, and will do a lot of good in your community. Or, find a creative way to fund a local charity through each employee’s sales or a key performance indicator (KPI).

For example, offer to make a matching donation for every sale a team member makes between 4pm and 6pm, rotating team members every day or every week. Or, for every week (or month) your team goes without an incident (or bad customer review, or whatever metric you want to use), make a donation to your local food pantry, or volunteer as a team at your local soup kitchen.

Last, talk to your team about social responsibility. Tell them your plan and ask for their input. There’s a good chance they have some valuable ideas on how your business can make a difference. And, do whatever it takes to keep communication lines open. Give your team easy ways to submit ideas or talk to you about future opportunities to help in the community.

Don’t Be Afraid to Be Innovative
Companies that do good and innovate can reap big returns from their customers.

A 2017 study published in the journal Marketing Letters found that a social responsibility initiative can compensate for the lack of a strong brand or smaller advertising budgets, but it can’t compensate for a lack of innovation.

Put another way, this means that if your business doesn’t have a strong brand in the eyes of your customers, a social responsibility initiative might still be able to offer positive returns. The same is true for your advertising budget: If you’re struggling to stay top of mind with customers, a socially conscious initiative might be able to help. But if your business lacks innovation and creativity, there’s a chance it won’t do much in the eyes of your customers.

If you’re feeling stuck in a rut with your business but want to start doing something good, go online and look at what other businesses are doing. Read their examples, and figure out how you could apply those ideas in your own community in a creative way.

4. Set Goals

As you find ways to make a difference in your community, it’s important to set meaningful goals that will help you stay on track and, more importantly, stay conscious of how far you’ve come. These goals should be ambitious, but also realistic.

As an example, let’s take another look at Rosetta’s Kitchen in Asheville. They view food as a basic human right. It’s one of their core values, and they could have easily set a goal to end world hunger. However, that goal is likely unattainable for such a small business. Instead, they set a goal to feed everyone who comes through their door. This goal is simple, measurable, ambitious, and realistic.

So, what kind of difference would you like to see? Perhaps service is important to you, and you feel deeply upset when you hear about veterans living on the street in your community. Set a goal that you’ll help five veterans get off the street this year, and find ways that your business can make it happen. Next year, you’ll have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. Your goal then might be to get 20 vets off the street.

The point here is that goals give you a specific target to shoot for. They’re also essential in helping you keep track of your progress.

5. Choose Your Battles

hands giving food to the poor

As a small business, you can’t fight every battle. Even large corporations have to pick and choose the causes they’re going to fight for.

You need to choose a cause or initiative that closely aligns with your values or mission statement, or one that truly gets you and your team excited. Do this, and you’ll make a difference while staying authentic and true to yourself.

Final Word

There are an endless number of ways that your business can be a positive force for good in your community. You’re only limited by your imagination.

If you have a great idea that seems a little too ambitious, or you’re worried that you don’t have the resources to make it happen, get started anyway. It’s often the case that good attracts good, and you might find that the people, funding, and resources you need to make your initiative happen start popping out of the woodwork once you get started.

Does your small business have any social responsibility initiatives? If so, how are they going? If this is something you’d like to start doing, what small step could you take tomorrow to get started?


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Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.