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The new social responsibility: help the world profit from what you do naturally

Being at the front lines of change and impact can be lonely. A CEO might long to transform their company to a zero-waste initiative, or an employee could be looking to make more impact with their day-to-day work.

At any position in the business ecosystem, we’re all met with the desire to make more of a difference, and the question of what we can do as an individual to impact that change. How do we get other people involved? Where do we start? And how do we overcome the obstacles?

Common obstacle #1: How do you find the right things to care about?

With so many causes to champion, where do you start? Sally Hill thinks the question isn’t actually that simple. Hill is the cofounder of Wildwon, an experience design agency that focuses on growing the purpose-driven business ecosystem. Trends indicate that corporate social responsibility is moving away from general philanthropy and donations to charity, and moving more towards purposeful contributions.

According to Hill, look instead to where your company can offer the most unique value. Rather than simply donating money or racking up volunteer hours, ask yourself: what is the service or offering you are in the best position to leverage?

Rather than simply donating money or racking up volunteer hours, ask yourself: what is the service or offering you are in the best position to leverage?

For a financial organization, employees might be interested in performing pro-bono consultation to communities without regular access to financial consultants.

In the property sector, substantial impact can come from contributing solutions to the experience of homelessness and affordable social housing. In New South Wales, Australia, the Property Industry Foundation has already proven to be very successful as a forum and a philanthropic focal point “for people in the property and construction industry to use their skills and resources to help solve the important community problem of youth homelessness.”

Hill explains why this approach is so deeply effective: “Aim to identify an issue in the world, or the greatest negative impacts your company may be contributing to—and pair it with your company’s capacity and areas of unique expertise.” The place where these factors intersect is your point of leverage for creating the most impact.

Another example is Future Friendly, a design agency in Sydney working with purpose-driven businesses. One of their offerings is facilitating workshops with practitioners, government agencies, not-for-profits, and general consumers of a specific service. Using their design process, they help to create a clear agreement around a certain problem—and design better solutions by incorporating feedback from the people who are most directly affected.

“Many social services, government services, or even private small-acting companies don’t have the money for an agency to come in and reshape their entire vision,” explains Andrew Sedlak, Senior Service Designer at Future Friendly. “This is a win-win-win. We practice and hone our skills as facilitators harnessing the design-thinking process to create with more creative solutions. We help to improve the services that matter to us, and consumers can give direct input on problems they encounter on a daily basis.”

Common obstacle #2: How do you retain your intrinsic company focus when you’re also focusing on external causes?

What’s the best way to help your social responsibility efforts align with your intrinsic company focus? Integrate them. Build them into what you do.

Many companies are not used to being a voice, taking a public stand, or explicitly supporting a position on a social issue. They might be more comfortable making a corporate donation instead of using their brand to campaign. Start with small steps: experiment. What areas of social change are directly related to your industry? Where is your brand being spoken about, even outside of your own control or intention? How do you respond to these situations by staying true to your company’s values? Look at Mars, Inc.—when they found themselves unwillingly drawn into a political conversation they responded admirably and Skittles candy became advocates in the conversation about immigration and refugees.

Companies that take a stand on an issue have a right to be nervous at new kinds of attention. It’s one thing to be seen making positive contributions of social impact, but this is often paired with anxiety about increased scrutiny or fear around brand loyalty.

But let’s take Julian Rotter’s idea of the locus of control: whenever you are in the middle of practical action, it’s important to identify where the fuel for that action is coming from. Are your company’s actions driven by an aspirational drive based on your missions and values? Quite often, companies are driven by habits and demands of external factors. The market, the industry, consumer demand, global trends: too much focus on each of these areas can cause businesses to become reactive and lose being in tune with their own ideas of how they should operate in the world.

Your company can retain an internal locus of control by being driven by what is important to you internally—instead of dictating your actions based on the demands of other people that don’t really align with you as an organization.

What are your current mission and values? Seek ways to adapt and evolve them by writing in detailed efforts based on your company’s unique leverage point.

“There are lots of opportunities to align business objectives with a positive impact,” Hill describes, “That’s the sweet spot of having a purpose that is so aligned with the company’s core business, and to everyone in the company. Purpose emanates out from the centre—it informs your core values, employee engagement, and customer experience of your brand.”

"Purpose emanates out from the centre—it informs your core values, employee engagement, and customer experience of your brand." - Sally Hill

Sedlak agrees that a focus on pro-bono work can contribute to an integrated business experience: “There’s a benefit for us to get our name out there in way that shows that we do this type of work,” he explains. “We don’t just do it for companies that afford it. We want to help people. It allows us to focus on the industries we want to play in: healthcare, environmental services, transportation. We can invite ourselves into those spaces when they may not have the capacity to pull us in.”

Common obstacle #3: How do you keep going when it seems like no one else in the industry cares?

The place where social impact can feel loneliest is the sense that you’re out on a limb by yourself. But this isn’t necessarily detrimental.

“I don’t see it as a bad thing that a company would be an outlier in an industry by trying to transform its business in some way,” explains Hill. “That’s a positive thing. It would let your company stand out.”

Progress can seem slow from the ground. Remind yourself and your colleagues to look at transformational measures instead of simply incremental ones. Hill notes, “We often don’t see a huge change when we look at incremental steps. The transformational measures are more evident.”

    Tiffany Apczynski, Zendesk’s VP of public policy and social impact offers four specific steps for approaching social responsibility:

  1. Don’t overthink it. Programming and mission statements can evolve over time. The important thing is to get started. Ask some good questions, of yourself, and of your team. Find out what is important to your community. Identify your skills and key offerings, and brainstorm possible ways to fill in the gap.

  2. Education. Don’t go in assuming that you have all the answers. Think of CSR as a professional development class. And this also extends to your relationship with other companies. Don’t assume that everyone’s journey to making an impact looks the same. Get curious. Find out which social issues other companies are trying to solve. Can you offer skills in partnership to help them achieve their goal?

  3. Be humble. Prioritise the journey, not the destination. Recognise that some of your social consciousness efforts might stem from inadvertent negative impacts of your company and industry. Know that this is often the best place to start, and the deepest area you can impact.

  4. Measure results. Dig into existing metrics and see how CSR/empathy is impacting your company. You might be surprised by the results. These measurements can also help you to identify: what’s working? What do your employees and customers want more of?

This is about more than a program, volunteer hours, or charitable donations. Promoting and navigating social consciousness creates an organic relationship between your business, increased trust from your customers, and informed actions from your empathetic employees.

How would you describe your company’s unique position in the world? Practice telling the story around the impact you want to make, and keep it growing.

Emma Sedlak is a Scottish-American poet, writer, editor, and singer: qualities that make her well-suited for a career as a medieval minstrel. She works in corporate strategy and as a freelance writer, invested in helping people create deep, intuitive content and narratives. She lives in Sydney, Australia with her partner Andrew Sedlak, who contributed quotes to this article. She spouts poetry on Twitter, and snaps cat-pics on Instagram.