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Making your business’s community engagement initiative beneficial for all stakeholders is what ensures its longevity and continued impact. (LoveTheWind/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Making your business’s community engagement initiative beneficial for all stakeholders is what ensures its longevity and continued impact. (LoveTheWind/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

LEADERSHIP LAB

How businesses can run a meaningful community engagement program Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

Community engagement, known to some as corporate social responsibility, is not only the right thing to do, but it can also provide an enduring shared benefit for all involved. But acting with good intentions is quite different from doing the right thing in a way that truly benefits your business and its shareholders, employees and most importantly, society.

The business practice of giving back has grown, and for good reason. A recent report from research firm Nielsen found that 55 per cent of consumers say they are willing to pay extra for products and services from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact. Having a strong guiding principle is the foundation to a successful community engagement program for both small businesses and complex organizations. Having it be mutually beneficial for all stakeholders is what ensures its longevity and continued impact. Community engagement also factors into attracting and retaining talent as more and more people highlight this as a reason to work for or stay with a company.

There can be a strategic opportunity in how companies design, implement and operate a meaningful community engagement program. Since 2012, Mars Canada and our associates have executed community engagement with our Ben’s Beginners program, which is part of a global movement to bring families together in the kitchen and teach kids how to cook.

At the time, we looked at current brand initiatives and saw an opportunity to extend a contest, encouraging families to cook together, into something larger that benefitted the community. This fit in with a bigger belief, which was that it was important to educate families on the value of cooking as a means to establish healthy lifelong eating habits for future generations. With this clear objective in mind, we developed and continue to operate a program that our partners, associates and community can all stand behind.

So you want to give back. Now what?

A community engagement initiative should be a sustained investment that works hand-in-glove with the overall business strategy and the company’s own values with an aim to drive talent attraction and retention. It should also address an identifiable, relevant and unmet need. Talk to your employees to find out what their expectations are for a community engagement program, since they’ll be a big part of executing it. From there you’ll need to set a mandate, establish goals, create space in your budget, and identify a leader within your organization to oversee planning, implementation and ongoing success.

While there is no shortage of worthy causes, the trick is finding one that is not only the right fit for your brand, but also for your employees who work daily on the brand. One way of doing this is to look at your mission statement and make sure the cause you pick aligns with those goals. For example, Mars Canada is in the food business, so with Ben’s Beginners, it made sense to choose a cause that was a strong fit with our Food Purpose – Better Food Today. A Better World Tomorrow.

On the other hand, do not select a cause that is too broad, which may make it difficult to connect back to the purpose of your business.

Partnerships 101

Ensure there is alignment with any prospective partner on mission, vision and values. Beyond finding a main partner, consider whether other business partners – suppliers and customers alike – could play a role in either supporting the initiative or generating awareness.

Keep lines of communication open. This is especially important when it comes to partnerships because although you all share the same mission, you come from different backgrounds and approach challenges with different perspectives. At the beginning tour a potential partner’s organization to get a clear sense of their values and the way they operate. And while it might sound obvious, always meet in person before making big decisions. As a leader, your involvement shouldn’t be viewed as project–based but as an ongoing multi-year commitment.

Managing time and resources

Limited resources are a reality of doing business. When starting out, make the commitment that this is an area you are going to invest in. Globally across Mars, our associates are offered 16 paid hours of volunteer service annually. As long as you have a strong tie back to shared values, the investment should be easy to justify.

Commit only the resources you can and make realistic promises that can be fulfilled. Larger organizations may have the resources to take on ambitious agendas, while smaller companies may want to consider community engagement initiatives more proportional to the size of their business. For Mars, our goal is to help kids around the world establish healthy lifelong eating habits through Ben’s Beginners. While this is an appropriate goal for a business with a global footprint, it is important to remember you can make an impact on any scale and with any budget.

Getting employees involved

Employees want to have opportunities to give back, and employee involvement is vital to creating a successful community engagement program. According to Nielsen report roughly half already engage in volunteer work or donate to organizations engaged in social and environmental programs. Keep this in mind, as employees will be the heart and soul of your program. Money is no substitute for the relationships between your employees, your brand and your beneficiaries.

To ensure buy-in to your program, it needs to come from the top. Make it a priority for the senior leaders within the business. This is a great opportunity to lead by example! A sure way to fail is to make a declaration around a cause when you’re not willing to walk the talk yourself. Enable your employees to be the face of the program by providing them with the time and space to use their skills in a meaningful way, such as providing them with the opportunity to volunteer during work hours.

Measuring success

Success can be measured in a number of ways depending on the goals you have set out to achieve. Most importantly, the results of your efforts will come through in conversations with your employees and community partners, both of which are ideal sources for qualitative and quantitative feedback. When it comes to your business, you may also be able to observe quantitative data such as sales growth and for larger businesses, brand impressions and brand sentiment.

To ensure ongoing success, meet regularly with community partners and evaluate your strategy, which will help you identify issues and make adjustments if needed. This also provides an opportunity to spot synergies that can be beneficial to your business. Additionally, it can provide an opportunity for your employees to sit on community boards and have visible leadership in the community.

Remember, key learnings from social engagement programs do not have to live in a bubble separate from the work you do in your organization. They are also a great way to promote the development of leadership and teamwork skills, and an opportunity to build a positive reputation for your brand, ensuring that everybody – your business, your customers and their communities – wins.

David Dusangh is general manager for Mars Canada’s food segment, which includes the Uncle Ben’s and Seeds of Change brands.

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