How To: Make Your Business Socially Responsible

UPDATED: March 29, 2024
PUBLISHED: November 16, 2015

Corporate social or environmental responsibility isn’t just for Silicon Valley startups or publicly traded companies with big staffs devoted to their foundations. Companies of all ages and sizes commit to giving back and benefit by attracting and retaining top talent as well as appealing to consumers who increasingly demand products and services that are kind to people and the planet.

Consider the following:

• The Cone Millennial Cause Study found that 80 percent of 13- to 25-year-olds surveyed want to work for companies that care about their effect on and contributions to society.

• Sixty-five percent of MBAs surveyed in 2012 wanted to make a positive social or environmental impact through their careers.

• Fifty-five percent of online consumers around the world say they’re willing to pay more for products and services from companies devoted to social and environmental good, according to a recent Nielsen survey.

Note that last statistic: Globally, consumers prefer to be loyal to socially responsible companies. In 2014 India mandated that companies based in that country that have annual profits of at least the equivalent of $830,000 give back 2 percent of those profits to social or environmental programs.

Nikki Korn, principal of Cause Consulting, which helps businesses improve their corporate citizenship, says, “The employee-employer relationship has shifted. People want to wake up and work for a great company they feel good about.” Other stakeholders want that same feel-good sensation. Vendors, partners and clients are increasingly aware of the moral core of organizations with whom they interact. “Stakeholders are asking questions they weren’t asking even five years ago,” Korn says. “Whether you have one employee or 1,000, you can’t ignore the argument to create a cause program.”

The good news is it’s never too late to start a social-responsibility program. Consider Unilever’s Dove, which launched its award-winning viral “Real Beauty” campaign in 2004, nearly 50 years after the brand’s inception. The campaign aims to address the self-esteem and body-image issues of women and girls.

Create a Social Responsibility Mission

To create an effective social responsibility mission for your company, Korn advises:

• “It has to be authentic.” One-off events, annual donations or halfhearted efforts are meaningless in the long term. “Without leadership buy-in, it will never work.”

• It’s OK for national and global companies to focus locally. Solopreneurs and small companies often find it empowering to leverage their core skills pro bono. Corporate attorneys might offer help in foster-care cases, or a social media consultant may lend this skill to a local charity. “If people are good at something, they usually find it meaningful to use it outside of work.”

• “Focus on an effort that promotes teamwork and passion among your employees. In most cases, the staff plans the vision.”

• Weave your social responsibility program into the DNA of the company. Every aspect—every decision, department and communication—should address that mission. “Social responsibility is part of the road map of your business.”

• Don’t forget to promote. “It’s about balancing the steak with the sizzle”—or substance with the public relations and marketing messages. “Don’t expect a big media splash when you launch your program. It has to be woven into the entire brand.”

Examples of Corporate Social Responsibility


Who: Director of sales and marketing
Company: Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit, Maine
Cause: Environment
Result: High guest loyalty
Lesson: Build your mission into every aspect of the company.

My family built this property in 1983 as a 40-room resort that was later expanded to 144 rooms with four water areas, a theater and other amenities. But it wasn’t until 2006 that we wrote into our policy our commitment to the environment, and we were named Ogunquit’s first state-certified eco-friendly Maine hotel because of our efforts with solar power, recycling, composting, and reducing toxic chemicals from products used by housekeeping, landscaping and guests.

The year before, I attended a conference where I learned about the Green Lodging Certification Program administered by Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection. It made sense—the ocean, beaches and other local sights are the natural attractions that our guests enjoy. Plus, taking care of the Earth was part of how I was raised and is inherent to the business.

Our environmental program is much more than just turning off lights when we leave the room. Every policy is made with the environment in mind and is then extended through every business stakeholder. It made financial sense when we recently switched to fluorescent lightbulbs. But we explained to the staff that the bulbs will last longer, meaning less work is required to replace them, and they are safer for their health and that of our guests. The bulbs also produce fewer carbon emissions, so they’re better for the environment. The staff doesn’t see the electric bill, so we would never get the buy-in if we just focused on cost savings. Having the social mission creates a reason and a story for why everyone should care.

We don’t overtly promote our eco-friendly policy, but our solar panels are visible from the road as you drive in. When guests arrive, they are invited to tour the property to learn about our environmental practices, soap-recycling program and biodegradable guest products. They see behind the scenes and become part of our family.

This program has come to define our business. Hotels are discretionary businesses that have been dramatically changed by the Internet, which means many guests shop primarily by price. Our resort boasts 65 percent repeat business (a Deloitte survey found just 8 percent of travelers report “always” staying at their preferred hotel brand).


Who: Co-founder and CEO
Company: Mondetta Clothing Co. in Winnipeg, Manitoba
Cause: Mondetta Charity Foundation, which supports a primary school and day center in East Africa
Result: A staff enthusiastic about working for the company and supporting the cause
Lesson: Choose a program that is true to the business leadership’s passion.

This company was started in 1986 by four refugees from Africa: my brother and myself, and another pair of brothers. We started by selling apparel on the beach and then branched out into embroidered sports clothes. The company has always given back, but it was more ad hoc. All of us sat on different local boards, and in 1992 we started a charity golf tournament that benefited local organizations and attracted big names like hockey star Wayne Gretzky.

In 2002, after we recalibrated the business to focus on performance apparel, my uncle went back to Kenya, the country he fled in the 1970s. He felt that we could really make a difference there. At the time, there was a lot of bad press about big nongovernment organizations that relied on donations and spent large portions of budgets on administration. We felt we could have a direct impact. Plus the fact that all the founders’ families were refugees from the region meant that we cared passionately about it.

In 2004 we forged a partnership with a primary school in Uganda, helping to provide education, uniforms and almost 3 million meals to the almost 1,700 students it now serves. We also supported an orphanage in Kenya that served 1- to 3-year-olds orphaned by HIV/AIDS until terrorist activities in the area forced its closure in March.

The foundation is supported by fundraising, a portion of sales, and executive and staff donations. A quarter of our 120 employees choose to give a portion of each paycheck to the foundation, a total of $16,000 (Canadian) each year.

I was inspired by the people of Winnipeg. There are a lot of wealthy people here, and they give a lot to charity, but they are very discreet. While we do promote our foundation on our website, it is not something that is featured on the hangtags of our apparel. We explain the program to new staff members, and they tell us they get goose bumps. It is one of the reasons people want to work for us. We are currently working on a program to provide 6,000 pairs of shoes for kids in Africa. I keep getting emails from staff clamoring to be part of it.


Who: Co-founder and CEO
CompanyPrezi, a software firm based in Budapest and San Francisco
Cause: Several, including rebuilding Roma communities in Hungary
Result: A highly engaged and creative staff with low attrition
Lesson: Seek projects that give team members hands-on experiences outside of their daily routines.

My two co-founders and I were bootstrapping our company after starting it in Budapest at the height of the recession. The holidays were coming up, and instead of the typical party, we called a local social services agency to see if we could find a family who needed home renovations. The person on the phone laughed because there were countless families like that. So we spent the $1,000 we would’ve used for a party and two days of staff time renovating one room in this family’s apartment, and that really changed their lives. Even staying in a hotel for an evening while we worked on their home was something that they never thought they could do. Seeing that and having the opportunity for our team members to interact with each other in new ways was powerful.

That project was so meaningful that we grew it to the scale that we now renovate entire villages in the Roma community. We chose that community as well as lower-profile nongovernment agencies that are early in their lifecycles because both can really benefit from our support. When companies do a corporate social responsibility project meant as a public relations stunt, most of us can see that a mile away.

Last year, 100 of Prezi’s 250 employees (including 50 from the United States) traveled to a community called Bag, where they spent two days renovating 40 homes and built public restrooms, a playground, soccer field and community center.

The benefit of this and other programs is hard to quantify but really is part of our culture. It is one of the reasons people want to work here—a metric we measure. There are other benefits, too. These projects get people out of their cubicles so they work with their hands instead of a computer. They serve as inspiration for new ideas and bonding with colleagues in new ways. One engineer was very introverted but turned out to be the best on our team at home renovations. During a two-day project, he was in charge, and it was a great experience for him to be the leader and for me to follow his lead. It would be hard to find those kinds of growth opportunities otherwise.

This article appears in the December 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

Emma Johnson is a business journalist, gender-equality activist, and founder of the world's largest community of single moms, Emma and her best-selling book, The Kickass Single Mom, and her organization, Moms for Shared Parenting, have been featured in hundreds of national and international media outlets.