Innovations in community involvement

October 01, 1994

Today powerful forces are changing companies and impacting the way they can get involved:

tighter resources – with fewer staff in community affairs departments and smaller budgets, fewer cash contributions are possible;

corporations are down-sizing, re-engineering and slimming down – there are fewer employees and less slack time;

many are adopting a more strategic approach generally, including a strategic approach to philanthropy;

more outsourcing and the arrival of the ‘virtual’ corporation – life-long employment commitment cannot be offered, so the emphasis is on employability, not employment.

In parallel, other forces are changing communities:

less government action and more calls for private initiatives;

greater and growing needs, for economic development, for social services, for the breakdown of family;

weakening of the alternative sources of help – lower church attendance, less time available in a busy society for volunteering, more working women (the traditional carers).

In response to these changes, companies are adopting tighter criteria for their programmes; they must:

meet business objectives, especially marketing opportunities and employee motivation;

meet genuine social needs;

encourage more engagement – ‘leverage’ – both personally from individuals and from the corporation.

If these are the general trends facing companies, what are the innovations US corporations are now adopting? There are ten examples.

First, the need for community leadership is increasingly accepted; for example the America Leadership Forum – similar to Common Purpose in UK – is now operating in eight US cities and in Silicon Valley is a powerful force for networking.

There is also growing understanding of strategic economic development and of effective mechanisms.

Cause-related marketing is becoming more convincing; ethical companies are learning not to overstate their activities. Examples abound, from education ‘scrip’ with supermarkets offering funds to local schools based on sales , very widespread in California – to Hanna Andersson achieving remarkable catalogue sales growth in children clothes by emphasising their second-hand clothes return scheme for disadvantaged kids.

Direct volunteering is growing rapidly, with Service Days involving the whole workforce and extending to customers too; GE Plastics used this effectively to build team morale after a difficult take-over battle.

Newspapers like the New York Times are spreading information about corporate involvmeent and awards schemes are honouring creative ideas; examples include the Business Enterprise Trust, Colorado Corporate Responsibility Awards and the Local Heroes scheme.

The next innovation apparent is activating retirees, a valuable resource as senior citizens retire earlier, live longer and have more skills to offer.

Current employees too are being incentivised to get involved, both in volunteering their time and in contributing donations; companies are bringing the two together by matching corporate money with volunteer time.

Community networks are growing through on-line services as the electronic ‘highway’ grows; Smart Valley Inc. shares information on training resources, job listings and government services. Matching non-profit needs with professional resources is becoming easier.

Finally, companies are benchmarking their activities; again in Silicon Valley, 75 corporations are polling comparative data, concentrating first on inputs and then moving on to consider outputs and impact. The result will be a levelling up of activity.

So this is a very creative time to be involved, with plenty of opportunities to match the growing needs of the communities, as the business case grows in sophistication.

Kirk Hanson is currently Senior Lecturer in Business Administration at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, California, where he is helping companies in Silicon Valley to develop effective CCI programmes. His career has encompassed both the private and voluntary sectors, starting as corporate philanthropy officer for Wells Fargo Bank in the late 1960s.

Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 18 – October, 1994