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Choosing the right social impact activities for your brand

How do you attract top-notch talent, engage your staff like never before, bring in more customers, and do good in the world?

Three words: corporate social responsibility (CSR), also known as a social impact program.

There’s growing evidence that “doing well by doing good” with a robust social impact program will earn you more than great karma:

  • 87% of people say they will purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they care about, reports a Cone Communications CSR study
  • 88% of millennials believe that employers should play a vital role in alleviating social issues like income inequality, hunger, and the environment—and 86% say business success should be measured by more than profitability, according to a Deloitte study
  • 75% of millennials would take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible company, says a Cone Communications engagement study

CSR is becoming something that isn’t just “nice to have”—it’s a “need to have,” says Bryan de Lottinville, founder and CEO of Benevity, a digital “corporate goodness platform” that helps organizations create and manage social impact programs that inspire employees and consumers alike.

“The employee engagement data that flows from a robust corporate goodness program is showing reduced churn and increased attraction, retention, and engagement rates of employees, predominantly millennials, but across all five generations currently in the workforce,” de Lottinville said.

Companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Nike are turning to organizations like Benevity to help create human capital management and customer-facing engagement strategies, and to build a compelling corporate culture for the prosocial-oriented people they’re trying to attract as employees or customers. The effect is often stunning.

“We did an engagement study across 120 of our clients, representing 2 million employee users, and found that across those companies, the average turnover rate was 25%. For those who were the most robust users of our software, meaning they made donations and volunteered their time, that number went down to 12%,” said de Lottinville.

CSR is becoming something that isn't just "nice to have" - it's a "need to have," says Bryan de Lottinville.

Interested in livening up your social impact efforts? Here are some of de Lottinville’s best practices for creating a program that works.

Learn what your employees care about and offer choices

Employee A is passionate about the plight of polar bears. Employee B has a child with autism and wants more funding for research. Employee C wants to give her time to help eradicate hunger in her community. A good social impact program will encompass all of these interests (and more), and empower every employee to

You can provide options such as:

  • “Dollars for Do-ers” rewards, i.e., $20/hour of volunteering time (up to a cap) so people can give their time on the company’s dime
  • Payroll-enabled micro-donations
  • Employer donation-matching
  • Charitable team-building activities

“People want to be out there making a difference. To be able to do those things as part of their work experience helps create loyalty to your brand, company, and to their colleagues… this is part of their work-life integration, working in teams and showing leadership skills, not just writing checks to charities,” said de Lottinville.

Weave it into company culture

The goal for any social impact program is to make it part of the culture of the company, for both employees and customers. “Airbnb does this well. They have employee programs and are building social impact experiences into their product by enabling people to go on vacations that have a social impact agenda, and partnering with charities to do that,” said de Lottinville.

Organizations can also leverage their expertise to enable employees to make more of an impact with their skill set. Apple’s coding project offers information and resources to help people of all ages to learn how to code. “They’re giving away a lot of their product and get 120,000 of their employees to help implement and enable organizations to make use of it,” de Lottinville explained. “This takes CSR from a commodity mindset where you’re just handing out money or stuff and shifts it to be a part of the company’s DNA.”

The kind of commitment to make social impact a genuine part of the work you do requires establishing a dedicated team that includes marketing and HR professionals. “CSR is not a corner-of-a-desk kind of endeavor,” said de Lottinville.

[Read also: 3 surprising ways to volunteer your professional skills]

Look at your budget differently

Not many organizations will report having the resources to establish a new arm of their business dedicated to social impact, but de Lottinville says it’s all a matter of perspective.

“If you move away from the mindset that CSR is a handout and embrace it as an investment opportunity, your budget horizon changes a fair bit. When you think about something as simple as employee churn or what it costs to attract employees, that’s a big number across all industries.

"People want to be out there making a difference. To be able to do those things as part of their work experience helps create loyalty to your brand, company, and to their colleagues." - Bryan de Lottinville

Generally, organizations can expect to spend 1-2% of their pre-tax profit as a guideline for social impact spending. If you can make it robust enough to attract and retain employees, customers, and investors, it becomes a different line item on the budget.

Choose a technology solution

The power of SaaS can transform a resource-heavy operation into a streamlined process that employees can self-manage. Companies like Benevity, YourCause, CSRconnect, iPoint CSR, and more provide a variety of solutions to help create a social impact program and offer reporting functions that allow you to analyze your data and modify the program as you go.

[Read also: Airbnb's custom 360-view of the customer]

“If you believe that choice, user-centricity, and democratization are important in increasing the level of engagement and participation in CSR, it’s almost impossible to do it manually,” said de Lottinville. “You limit the number of charities you give to and decrease the time and opportunities people have to devote to it.”

He points out that millennials have grown up in an entirely online environment. To engage them, you have to provide a solution that is

Consistently improve the program

If you have an analytics function for your social impact program, use the insights to evolve your system as you go. “You can look at the data and say, ‘We’ve got X% of our people who’ve given to this charity or cause.’ That doesn’t mean the company has to make a sizable donation to these ends, but it does mean that it’s an opportunity to connect with a larger swath of the population than if it picks an issue out of the air to make an endowment.”

You can also adjust the offerings available to employees based on your findings to further engage them with opportunities that are meaningful to them. The more passionate they are about what they’re able to accomplish in the world, the greater ambassadors they are for your organization.

[Read also: Company culture is more than ping-pong and free snacks]

Take notes from tech

de Lottinville says it’s no coincidence that some of Benevity’s most progressive clients are in the technology industry. “They are competing most aggressively for talent. [CSR] is a way to create collegiality and corporate culture. It’s giving people the chance to get up above the day-to-day and be part of something larger, that gives them a sense of purpose and meaning beyond the daily to-dos.

“As you start to see returns from this, companies struggle to throw enough budget at it,” he said.

Whether you’ve got an outdated or fledgling social impact program, or haven’t begun to think about it yet, it’s a powerful way to hit a high note in a number of places across your business—and society at large.

“If we’re going to solve problems that governments are underfunded or not equipped to do, we need to galvanize individuals and invest in the power of small actions,” said de Lottinville. “When it comes to impact, the sky’s the limit.”