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It’s well established that giving back to the community is good practice for businesses of any size. From sponsoring the local soccer team to directing millions of dollars toward major corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, meaningful efforts on any level can reap benefits for both community and corporation.

The key word here is meaningful. Tokenism has no place in building relationships with communities, consumers or employees. Indeed, philanthropy must be considered a natural part of doing business – modern table stakes to attract consumers, support growth, be a contributing member of the community and build a better brand.

There is often a tendency among business leaders to fly under the radar when it comes to charitable efforts. It can sometimes feel a bit off, or unsavoury, to promote one’s goodwill – and I know, because five years ago that’s what our sentiment was at COBS Bread.

Yet the simple fact is that these important efforts are worth highlighting, for the sake of a brand’s reputation and bottom line (not to mention, of course, bringing needed exposure for the organizations being supported). Consumers want to understand a company’s altruistic side, and it impacts their loyalty – one study found that 70 per cent of Canadians are more likely to purchase from companies that give back.

The employee connection

Beyond the obvious benefits of engaging community and consumers is the often overlooked area of attracting top talent. As millennials, Gen Z and future generations chart careers, they desire employers who actively give back.

Given that most job seekers today are under 40, it’s important to ensure a company’s position on philanthropy is clear when increasing head count. Once a point of differentiation, it’s now an expectation: younger workers are expecting companies to prioritize CSR and are far less likely to work for those that don’t.

Employee retention is the other edge of the recruitment coin and philanthropic efforts serve to empower employees and set a positive foundation to go beyond just the job. To that end, all staff can be part of these efforts themselves, and co-lead decisions around CSR involvement. These efforts are best considered a team initiative, rather than top-down decisions – and it will pay off by boosting morale and reducing the risk of turnover.

Key strategies for meaningful engagement

There is but one way to approach all this: authentically. Any causes a company supports should reflect what key stakeholders are truly passionate about. The goal is to engage in CSR activities that are relevant and important to the owner, staff members and consumers – ideally in that order.

Once staff members are aligned on a cause, they are more likely to get behind it themselves. In whatever fashion a business will lend support, be it by raising funds or providing in-kind products and services, it first begins with getting teams on board and demonstrating why it matters to their community.

Philanthropic strategies are most authentic when they are aligned with business operations. At COBS Bread, we donate all leftover bread and baked treats through our end-of-day giving program to support the community in need – $60-million worth of product in 2020 alone. We feel we have an obligation and the means to give back, and it’s part of our DNA to find a home for every last loaf. This program resonates deeply with our customers and employees and has helped attract potential franchisees to our business.

Lastly, the key to meaningful engagement is getting clients or customers to help fund the initiative. A business is able to donate only a finite amount of earnings, so to deliver true impact, there must be a way for customers to help drive the efforts either through sales or donations. This again speaks to the team approach, and trying to meet a collective goal – and to do that, companies must clearly communicate the strategy and the specific reasons why they are invested in this CSR activity.

Overall, corporate responsibility and community involvement is an open conversation – and it’s important to be ready to provide answers. For business owners still at the beginning of their philanthropic journey, ask: What do I care about? What do I want to support? How can I give back in a meaningful way that’s authentic to my business? What is the charity’s goals and how can I help solve them?

Uncovering the answers will be one of the most rewarding – and likely profitable – endeavours in one’s business career.

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Aaron Gillespie is the president of Vancouver-based COBS Bread, with nearly 140 bakeries across Canada. He is the Leadership Lab columnist for October, 2021.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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