Want Real Impact from Your CSR Program? Listen to Your Community!

This post was originally published on the Charities@Work blog.

It’s been said so often over the past several years, that it’s starting to feel cliché. But I’ll say it again.

“The world of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is changing.”

We often look at how this is happening, but today let’s start by looking at why.

We’ve known for a long time that the days of “throwing a check” at a nonprofit to enhance corporate image are over. One reason? Skepticism from customers. But another, perhaps more powerful reason?

Employees themselves are asking for real impact.

“Employees are demanding more transparency, accountability and proof of life that their donations are resulting in measurable outcomes and social impact,” says  America’s Charities Snapshot 2015 Report.

Employees want to be sure their corporate-sanctioned giving (both time and money) has real impact. But what does real impact look like?

The best volunteer programs listen to their communities.

Tracking metrics such as the number of hours your company volunteers, the increase in employee volunteer rates, etc. is important. In fact, it’s very important. It’s a way to uncover the levels of engagement inside company. However, what these metrics don’t clearly show is the impact of your volunteer program outside of your company. To draw from another cliché, if a team of volunteers paints the same fence year after year, are they really having a real impact? Of course not. The time spent re-painting that fence could be spent on critical community needs.

Because of this, companies are now encouraged, if not pushed, to tell the story behind their hours. “Who are the people that our volunteer hours helped? By packing those boxes at the food bank, how many less people in our city went hungry this winter? By setting up a technical infrastructure for my local nonprofit, how much did it increase their capacity, allowing how many more clients to be assisted?” These are the stats that matter the most. This is real impact.

And when real impact occurs, everyone wins. Both your company and your employees can be assured that your time and resources are being spent in the most efficient way possible. Employee satisfaction soars. (For example, JetBlue recently found that volunteer program participants were more engaged and had higher performance ratings than their non-volunteering peers.) And to top it off, the stories you’re equipped with to share with your customers will be much more engaging and impressive than the number of hours you volunteered this year.

Now that we’ve looked at the what and the why of real impact, there’s another pressing question: How do we achieve it? The answer is deceptively simple.

That answer? Listen.

No company has the knowledge and/or intuition to automatically know where the needs of a community lie. Committed volunteers and staff at community-focused nonprofit organizations – these are the people most familiar with local issues. These are the people whose full-time jobs, or at least full-time passions, it is to know how to fill community needs.

That being said, there’s not always a clear path to listening to your community. How do you connect with them? Where do you start?

One way is the VolunteerMatch network, where real nonprofits (100,000+) from all over the United States and beyond post their volunteer needs. This is now accessible through corporate social responsibility technology solutions for companies, such as Causecast and Good Done Great, as well as through YourMatch.

Another way is to ask your employees. Your employee base is, without a doubt, full of people passionate about a variety of causes. Many of them are already spending their free time working hard to improve their local communities, and this is a great way to get them invested in your corporate volunteer program, as well.

City National Bank, a 2015 finalist for VolunteerMatch’s volunteer program of the year award, listens to their communities by using YourMatch to connect with local needs. And they also listen to their employees.

In a recent interview, they said, “While many of our programs are promoted “top-down,” driven by executive involvement, many more of them are “bottom-up,” created and implemented by employees who had a great idea and are empowered to bring it to life.” And it works. One employee-led initiative impacted 1,000 students to prepare them for the coming school year.

Furthermore, many companies are now making deliberate efforts to strengthen relationships with nonprofit partners. A popular session at the 2015 VolunteerMatch Summit allowed nonprofits and companies to come together speed-dating style to get real feedback on how they communicate with the “other side.”

At the end of the session, one participant commented to the group, “When I started my pitch, I started with sharing what we could give to our nonprofit partners. My colleague held out her hand and said ‘Stop right there. Don’t tell me what you can give me. Ask me what I need. And let’s take it from there.’ I learned more with that one interaction than I have in years of my own internal program evaluation.” This was someone who runs a CSR program at a Fortune 500 company.

To be candid, a CSR program that doesn’t listen to the needs of its communities is nothing more than PR. Luckily, there is a shift away from this mentality, and for good reason.

Now, whenever you hear someone say, “The world of CSR is changing,” know this:

The world of CSR is changing for the better.

And it’s doing so because we are starting to listen.

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