Managing corporate community involvement effectively requires designing strategic programmes, evaluating their impact, and leveraging that impact for reputation benefits

How a company manages relationships with its communities is all encompassing, from the supply chain to operations, employees and, most importantly, customers. Everything a company does makes a difference to its communities one way or another. So, how should a company manage that positively, and where should it start?

For us, a leading approach to corporate community involvement is cross-sector collaboration at the highest level, addressing the big issues and partnering to complement a company’s own expertise.

Acknowledging the role of business in solving social challenges related to employment, health, safety, education, culture and the environment is the first step. Working with governments and NGOs to create solutions to pressing problems should follow, as should jointly implementing solutions in local contexts.

In our experience, for a company’s community involvement to become truly inspiring, industry-changing and society-shaping, it needs to draw on the company’s core competencies to build solutions for critical community needs.

Inspiring change

A great example here is IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative. However, it’s not just the top multinationals that can inspire, change a whole industry’s approach to community involvement and create systemic change in society.

Betapharm, with only 350 employees, expanded its community involvement initiative, lobbying the German parliament successfully to have long-term home care of chronically sick children covered by public healthcare.

Any company can make such a difference – it is, as Nike has acknowledged with the renaming of its whole corporate responsibility function, about “business innovation and sustainability”.

We intend to highlight here some key aspects of community involvement that we think are most frequently missed out. Apart from the “CR heroes” that get name-checked regularly, such as Marks & Spencer and Novo Nordisk, few seem to undertake community involvement comprehensively. It is more common to encounter a fragmented approach. For a comprehensive and coherent assessment, a company needs to look around its entire business.

NGOs or government representatives need to ask the following questions of their corporate partners:

  • Considering all possible community touchpoints, how comprehensively has the business really integrated its community involvement?
  • What’s the attitude to bringing in corporate core competencies in order to generate solutions to societal issues?
  • How good is the company at measuring and evaluating its work in the community?
  • Finally, how does the business leverage community involvement results for reputation benefit? Is it communicating real impact rather than just spin?

It is a key challenge for every organisation, even the perceived leaders, to really integrate community involvement into several parts of a business. We’ve spoken with and studied many organisations and seen some fantastic initiatives, but it is rare that community involvement brings the community strategy together with the business strategy.

A leading company in this area will have at least one truly inspiring programme involving the company’s core competencies – such as Moving the World for TNT. Such a programme will have engaged employees, and have an impressive partnership across sectors and even with other businesses as a corporate platform.

But will it have systematically looked across all its business at how else it should be strategically engaging in its communities? Will it have considered how its supply chain community impacts can be improved? Will it have engaged customers in its community activities?

The fact is that any business can undertake more in the area of community involvement. When looking at business integration of community involvement, we tend to find there are different functions that can contribute their core competencies: research and development, business development, operations, marketing and human resources.

How about the R&D function of IT companies looking into how children will learn in the future, as done by Intel? How about business development devising beneficial community solutions that can be taken to scale and can even be income-generating, as several banks have done for micro credits?

How about marketing coming up with really successful cause-related campaigns, like Volvic’s “One litre for 10 litres”, or Procter & Gamble’s One Pack One Vaccine Pampers initiative with Unicef?

Smart partnerships

Cause-related marketing can almost be seen as an early form of crowd-sourced philanthropy that has now been fully taken online through social media. Latest campaigns include Pepsi Refresh and JPMorgan Chase’s Chase Community Giving on Facebook. Another great example of engagement is Orange’s Rockcorps programme, now in its third year, where young people receive free concert tickets in exchange for volunteer work.

And how about human resources arranging for employees to contribute time and skills, as many of the large consulting companies including Accenture do through pro bono consulting, for example to NGOs in developing countries?

When extending a community perspective to operations, approaches vary. BG Group’s social performance standard and management system is relatively concise and easy to use, but still comprehensive. Others have gone much further. It is open to debate whether Anglo American’s socio-economic assessment toolbox is too comprehensive, but Anglo American deserves praise for setting the benchmark and making it available for common use by any other company.

From the human resources side, employee involvement contributes to pride and identification with the company, to recruitment, and to building skills and team development. These are wonderful, low-cost initiatives that almost every company in the UK has, and other markets across Europe are catching up rapidly. However, few companies approach them strategically or create really powerful flagship initiatives around them, such as Cisco’s Leadership Fellows programme.

The other area for community involvement managers is to help HR enhance opportunities via the recruitment process. Companies, especially big ones, have a standard number of recruitment channels, but everyone is chasing the same people. What about finding alternative sources of motivated employees while improving communities at the same time? Companies such as Marks & Spencer and National Grid (see box) have been doing this for years.

We asked a director of public relations at a major bank based in Bahrain what he’d be most interested in learning about how to manage community involvement. He said he wanted to learn about measurement and evaluation first, so he could take that into consideration when setting out to plan his community strategy.

Often managers work the other way round. Once companies have created their believed-to-be-excellent community programmes, they then look for a robust approach to measuring and evaluating their work. However, measurement and evaluation should not be an afterthought. It should be part of the initial community strategy development and subsequent programme planning.

For successful measurement and evaluation, focusing merely on reporting input and output is also no longer enough. Stakeholders want to know about outcomes and impact: how are direct and indirect beneficiaries affected long-term? What difference does a community programme make in their lives, in the quality of life in their communities, and for the environment?

Clearly outcomes and impact will always be challenging to evaluate. At the same time, there is an increasing number of community projects, and stakeholders are becoming more sophisticated about what they expect of companies. And so the latter must assess this area well if they want their community investments to be seen positively.

The good news is that community involvement managers do not need to do this by themselves. It helps to team up with an independent third-party organisation, such as a university department or research institute, that has the required expertise. Involving them will give additional credibility to the assessments a company reports.

Then, measurement and evaluation results should be used as a management tool, so a company improves future programme management.

Results through communication

In the world of corporate responsibility, the most interesting communications tends to come from crises – such as Greenpeace’s recent Nestlé campaign, the Foxconn scandal, or, of course, everything surrounding the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. Interest has been exacerbated by how social media has made each of those issues snowball.

This is the kind of often unforeseeable, arguably uncontrollable, public perception that any company would want to avoid. But, if a company’s community programme is any good, they should want as many people as possible, and especially their customers, employees and other stakeholders, to know all about it.

A recent McKinsey study, Valuing Social Responsibility Programs, was positive on the business benefits of corporate community involvement competently executed and communicated well. These include increased revenue, reduced risks and enhanced relationships – such as high-level contacts with government, especially in emerging markets.

The challenge, as noted by the head of corporate communications at a major pharmaceutical company, is: “What we do is worthy, but it’s not considered newsworthy.” The news cycle tends to thrive on bad news – “when it bleeds, it leads”. News has also become much more complex and fragmented, given the steady rise of social media.

What is important is to have thought through and planned how any communication will take place. It is necessary to define communication objectives and strategy, identify target audiences, and only then start thinking about what may be the right tactics to employ. They may be a press conference, press release, website, blog, magazine, film or something much more creative and original – or a combination of several channels.

It is highly recommended to do this planning first, in a sound communications plan, not ad hoc and random. And it helps to go beyond mere announcements of future activities – making sure there are results to show.

While this all sounds very structured, the other major change in communications culture is that it is no longer one way. The world is much more interconnected, so “tell” as a communications strategy no longer works.

This is something many corporate communications departments are only just starting to get the hang of. It is not uncommon for the new attitude of interconnection to be driven by the culture of corporate responsibility advocating genuine stakeholder dialogue, collaboration and partnerships.

The best community programmes, as well as the best communications campaigns, are now those that bring that spirit of co-creation into their development. That way, the opportunity for storytelling and spreading the word is there right from the start.

Nokia Germany, for example, asked the public for causes its volunteers should engage in. At the time, members of the community sent hundreds of postcards and emails. An employee committee selected the causes, employees went out and volunteered, and the company had beautiful opportunities, through local media, to report back on consumers’ engagement, causes chosen, and volunteering work contributed. All the media-friendly human-interest stories were right in there.

Nowadays, social media, which seems to be full of corporate-responsibility-related subjects, is an excellent channel to do this with. But it is worth remembering that for all its power and influence, social media does not yet engage the majority of people; rather a very vocal, wired and pretty articulate group. If a company’s stakeholder group is more diverse than those who use social media regularly, then it is important to consider how else the company needs to engage them.

There are many facets of community involvement – and many aspects offer ways for a company to do something distinctive. As sustainability expert Dr Mark Wade says, corporate responsibility managers “have the hardest and most rewarding job in the world. Get it right and you will add value to your company and value to the communities and society it serves.”

Why would a company not want to do more and create real impact?

Nick Lakin is head of corporate responsibility and commercial communications at Molson Coors UK. Previously he was vice-president for marketplace and community at E.ON.
Veronica Scheubel built and managed Nokia’s global community involvement programme in more than 20 countries. She is now a corporate responsibility and organisational change consultant, trainer and executive coach based in Germany.
Lakin and Scheubel’s book – Corporate Community Involvement: The Definitive Guide to Maximizing Your Business’s Societal Engagement – is available through

Giving a second chance

National Grid, the UK-based infrastructure utility, has for many years run a pioneering young offenders retraining programme. It works with more than 20 prisons targeting both adult and young offenders.

Every trainee is offered support and mentoring both pre- and post-release in order to ease the transition from prison life to the world of work. More than 1,000 offenders have participated, with a reoffending rate of only 7% compared to the national average of over 70%. The programme was expanded across all industries in the UK, with more than 80 companies now engaged.

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