Businesses of all sizes and across industries spend billions of dollars a year on corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. CSR varies widely from company to company and can be anything from eco-friendly office practices to charitable giving and volunteering, but regardless of the form it takes, it’s a critical part of succeeding in the current economy. In fact, reports show that as many as 90 percent of consumers would do business with a company because it supports an issue they care about, and 75 percent of consumers would refuse to do business with a company that supports a cause contrary to their own values. Furthermore, 81 percent of millennials want organizations to publicly commit to being good corporate citizens.

It’s clear that a strong CRS strategy is no longer a nice-to-have — it’s a must-have.

CSR means choosing to put people and the planet first by operating in a way that is economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable, and it represents a tremendous opportunity for businesses to build trust, bolster their reputations, and give back to the community. Companies creating or ramping up their CSR strategies should consider these three critical pillars to get it right:

Pillar 1: Clients

Clients and consumers (depending on the business model) want to be associated with businesses that are doing good and have good reputations.

CSR initiatives can give a competitive advantage to brands that are already highly competitive on price, quality, and convenience. Embracing socially responsible policies helps a company burnish its image and cultivate positive brand recognition by demonstrating that it is a compassionate and trustworthy organization. These values go a long way toward attracting and retaining clients. By building client loyalty, CSR helps companies achieve increased profitability and long-term financial success.

For example, a marketing and advertising agency can practice CSR by working with nonprofit clients as well as for-profit businesses. A compelling campaign for a children’s hospital or a conservation nonprofit telegraphs to other clients that the agency is committed to giving back, and clients will want to be associated with that goodwill. Charitable giving is another way businesses can use CSR to strengthen their client relationships. During the holiday season, businesses can donate to charitable organizations on behalf of their clients, which has the dual benefit of supporting meaningful causes and showing clients your business cares.

Pillar 2: People

Making CSR a priority creates a positive work environment that inspires and unites employees.

Just as CSR cultivates goodwill and loyalty from clients, it too can have the same effect internally. Good CSR tends to attract employees who are eager to make a difference in the world — and these people are often top-tier talent who want jobs that have meaning and impact, not just generous salaries.

Social responsibility empowers employees to leverage corporate resources to do good, and those collective employee efforts can achieve substantial results. This, in turn, increases workplace morale and boosts productivity. When workers have a sense of pride in the company, they are more engaged in their jobs and more committed to their employers. Put simply, they are more likely to stick around and do good work.

CSR has to start at home. A key but sometimes overlooked aspect of CSR is how a company treats and supports its own employees. A company that makes large donations to charitable organizations but doesn’t pay its own workers a fair wage or provide equal access to opportunity is not living up to its stated values. Diversity and inclusion are essential to CSR. When company leaders prioritize these issues, they create a culture of social responsibility that serves employees, clients, and customers well.

Consider policies around flexible work schedules and remote work options. Those might not seem directly related to CSR on the surface, but they are critical to making jobs more accessible to a wider swath of people. A company with rigid hours may have trouble attracting or retaining employees with young kids or elder parents to care for, which can result in a homogenous workforce. A corporate culture that promotes work/life balance and employee well-being is also part of CSR.

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Pillar 3: Community

Businesses have a role to play in making local communities and the planet cleaner places to live.

The Earth is the only life support system we have, and companies should be passionate about protecting it by applying green thinking to every decision. Every business, no matter the size, can have a positive impact on the environment by implementing environmentally conscious practices and procedures designed to address climate change.

The opportunities are endless: recycling programs, purchasing eco-friendly office products like paper towels and cleaners, installing a water filtration system to reduce plastic water bottles, technology that automatically goes into energy-saving mode, employee tree-planting days, bonuses for employees who use green methods of commuting like bicycling or public transportation — the list goes on, and no measure is too small.

Building a Strong CSR Strategy Based on the 3 Pillars

Identify Your Strengths

With these three pillars of CSR in mind, companies can embark on building effective CSR strategies by first identifying their strengths:

  1. What are you good at?
  2. What do clients, potential hires, and the broader business community look to your company for?
  3. What do you have that no other company has?
  4. What can you offer that is unique?

Understand Customer and Employee Values

Next, consider what your clients and customers value. Are there particular issues they care about? Once you’ve identified those issues, the next step is to determine how your company can support them. For example, if gender equality is a big area of interest, your company could donate to charitable organizations that support that goal, as well as ensure the gender balance of its own workplace is equitable.

Companies should also solicit input from their employees when crafting CSR strategies. One goal of CSR is to engage employees in collective action, so their opinions should influence how company time and resources are spent in service of social responsibility.

Evaluate the Data

The most effective CSR programs capture analytics and measurements to gauge how successful campaigns really are. You want to make sure you are designing programs to have an impact, not just for show. Employees and clients alike will appreciate knowing the concrete outcomes your CSR drives.

The most successful CSR strategies are not supplemental or peripheral, but baked into a company’s DNA. There are few aspects of a business that thoughtful CSR can’t improve. Incorporating CSR into your business strategy builds brand recognition and client/customer loyalty, achieves cost savings through reduced global footprint, attracts positive media attention, recruits and retains top talent, and improves employee satisfaction and morale. Most importantly, companies that practice CSR can make a real difference in the world.

Paige Peterson is director of HR at Hawthorne.

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