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How to build an effective corporate social responsibility program

Executive director, Boston Pizza Foundation, Future Prospects.

It's the Catch-22 of corporate social responsibility: People expect successful companies to give back, but there's also an ingrained public cynicism that assumes any good a business does is in its own best interest. So, how exactly can organizations make a difference in their community without creating indifference around their efforts or looking like their motivations are ultimately self-serving?

Around 2010, the Boston Pizza Foundation (BPF) felt this indifference. We were writing big cheques to a number of worthy charities and causes, but we couldn't exactly quantify what was being accomplished. And we felt this lack of impact throughout our company – from franchisees to employees to guests.

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Since that day, we changed our entire approach to giving back. We built a corporate social responsibility (CSR) program we are proud of, BPF Future Prospects, with one goal and focus: providing kids across Canada with access to strong role models. And we've raised a lot of money – $24-million and counting. More importantly, we can now see the difference we're making. The results are tangible and the impact is real.

Here's how you too can build an effective CSR program:

Make it authentic

Before selecting mentoring and the importance of role models as our foundation's signature cause, we engaged a third-party organization, ORENDA Connections, with expertise in corporate social responsibility and program development. While this may sound less authentic on the surface, this wasn't a case where we leaned on focus groups and market research to uncover a trendy topic. We created a task force of key stakeholders in and outside of our organization to find a cause that held equal importance to our brand, franchisees, employees and guests.

We asked ourselves, "Who are we as a company?" And we looked at what we do each and every day as restaurant operators within our four walls and in the communities we operate. As one of Canada's biggest employers of first-time employees, we recognized we were already heavily involved in the lives of young people. We then looked at the makeup of our vast franchisee community and how many of them came from various walks of life before being mentored to become successful restaurateurs by others in our organization, including my father Jim.

We quickly began to feel a real excitement and strong synergy between who we are as a company and how, through our philanthropy, we could have an impact in the communities we worked and played in. Mentoring was at the very core of our business. From there, it was a matter of engaging the charities we now support as partners in this goal. To make a difference through mentorship, we focused on giving money to ideas and initiatives that aligned with our mission.

Take a hands-on approach

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When choosing a charity partner, you want to look for an organization that is efficient and uses its funding wisely, but you also want one that's perpetually evolving. Kids Help Phone met the gold standard for us in that respect. Once a charity that connected with kids solely over the phone, it has adapted its services to change with the times, serving at-risk youth through social media, mobile devices and online chats.

In addition to Kids Help Phone, we work with great organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, the JDRF, Live Different and the Rick Hansen Foundation. With each of them, we establish donation agreements, with the theme of partnering for change.

This is certainly not an arrangement where we hand out oversized cheques once a year and hope for the best. Because we're a national organization, we want to make sure we're making an impact in as many communities as possible, on as many kids as possible. Therefore, we're in regular contact with our partners, sometimes on a weekly or even daily basis, and we're actively involved in all of the programs that our dollars flow to.

Build long-term partnerships

While no charity is going to turn down your money, you have to recognize the inherent limitations of a one-time donation. Operating with limited budgets and resources, it's almost impossible for a charity to create new programming or services if it doesn't know whether you will be providing the same level of funding the following year.

The commitments we make with our partners are generally for five years, and we work with one another over that time to build new programs and find new solutions. Over the years, our experience has shown us that good things often take time to develop. Impact isn't always immediate. You need to commit to working alongside your charitable partners to achieve your collective goals.

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At the same time, you should always be looking for opportunities to bring your charitable partners together. Just by getting our partners in the same room, we've seen incredible synergies develop between Kids Help Phone and both Big Brother Big Sisters and Live Different over the past few years. That only happens when you have one cause that all your partners support and fully commit to.

Give people reason to believe

For a CSR program to be successful, your business has to believe in it from the bottom up. In our case, many of the 22,000 young people we employ across the country have personal experience with the programs we support. While growing up, they might have called Kids Help Phone, were a Little Brother or Sister, or were inspired toward social activism by one of Live Different's motivational in-school presentations. They know firsthand how invaluable the right support, guidance and inspiration can be to a young person.

This kind of engagement is a big deal. You want your front line employees to know which charities and causes you support and why, and feeling empowered by that. Even more important, of course, is building trust with your customers. People work hard for their paycheques, and when they're asked to donate, you have to show them exactly where their money is going.

When we tell Canadians that last year their donations made through our fall and Valentine's Day promotions helped provide young people with 200,000 hours of valuable time with role models, they see a pretty compelling reason to give.

Simply put, people want to make an impact and it is the responsibility of every business to provide customers with the chance to make a real difference. The only trick is in finding a cause that is as authentic to your company as it is to your customers.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the continuing Leadership Lab series.

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