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Ten quick tips on how to ensure social community projects don’t go horribly wrong

It’s never too soon to start thinking about your company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) program – no matter how new or small your organisation may be.

However, a CSR programme can be a double-edged sword. Done properly, it can help a company comply with legal and ethical standards, promote social or environmental good in the local and even global community. However, half-hearted efforts with no committed resources for these programmes can lead to more harm than the good they were intended to deliver for your company’s brand.

Well-executed CSR programme makes for strong appeal in the business development process besides ensuring good corporate citizenship. As large brands increasingly aim to work with companies whose policies mirror their own commitment, your access to their business could hinge on whether your company has a CSR policy that aligns with theirs.

Here are 10 things to keep in mind in laying the foundation for a successful CSR policy:

1. Determine what makes your company unique. Each company’s culture and skills position it to establish unique ways to provide CSR initiatives that are intrinsic to its brand. This is your company’s opportunity to get local or global or creative or all of the above. What will motivate employees and align the company’s objectives with external stakeholders? Companies might initiate best-in-class policies, champion regulatory or legislative changes, or reinvent a product that changes an industry.

2. Look at the gold standards for guidelines. Adopt an internationally-recognised standard with approved criteria and metrics that are independently verified by a certification body. Find one with metrics most relevant to your business so you can establish your baseline performance and goals – perhaps that’s the certification of core source material you use in your business, or your carbon or water footprint, level of waste diversion, or your community involvement. Look at the areas that your business affects, the areas that matter to you, and to the stakeholders you want to engage.

3. Engage employees. By engaging your employees in the process of creating, implementing and managing your CSR policy you will foster a sense of ownership in and responsibility for the success of your company’s CSR programme. At the same time, you will discover the ways in which core business must adapt its practices to best execute the programme. An example from our own business, Cottonsoft, centres on our primary sponsorship of Beat Bowel Cancer Aotearoa (BBCA). Some of our employees have personal experience with cancer; the fit with our brand, as a major toilet tissue manufacturer, is a no-brainer; and there is an overwhelming community need for greater education and advocacy. It is that much easier to bring people into the fold when the logic and strategy are plain to see.

4. Consider health and safety. Your policies should take into account the health and safety of your employees beyond what is just required by the letter of the law. This doesn’t stop at hard hats or safety glasses but extends to all facets of how you do business. Ensure that you have the budget and infrastructure for proper equipment, training and support. Healthy and safe work employees are the most productive employees.5. Draft it. Live it. Breathe it. A CSR programme is more than a well-articulated document – it needs to be comprised of executable principles that every member of the organisation can put into action. If you’re asking your team to do anything you yourself wouldn’t do, then assume there are others like you on the team and re-evaluate.

6. Brand it. Consider your CSR programme not only as part of your overall brand strategy but as having an equally strong and recognisable brand that can stand alone. Could your CSR programme be the distinction between you and your competition? If so, you’ll want to monetise that by branding the programme for both customers and employees as you build a sustainable and positive corporate culture. Another Cottonsoft example is that of Cottonsoft Books for Change; in designing a CSR initiative that would ask schools around New Zealand to donate used books to learning centres run by our affiliate APP in Indonesia, we wanted to create a programme that was its own identifiable entity, and that would be recognized in a market beyond New Zealand.

7. Establish metrics. Identify the benchmarks and metrics that reinforce successful practices in order to show how you’ve moved the needle over time. By actively adhering to reported outcomes you will also demonstrate commitment and align your company with potential stakeholders who respect the effort and the transparency. If you’re partnering with or sponsoring a charitable organisation, such as Cottonsoft does with BBCA, ensure that all campaigns are tracked and the results measured and analysed. This will teach you what worked and what didn’t and streamline the process for future planning and execution.

8. Treat your programme like a course of study and create a curriculum. Build in the training and education that will be needed for current and future employees to learn about the programme and how to embody it within their job function.

9. Continuous improvement. Once you’ve established the programme, don’t rest on your laurels. CSR programmes have goals – what will you do once you achieve those goals? How will you push further? Account for continuous improvement strategies that will increase your potential impact every year. Perhaps it’s about higher percentages or certification.

10. Leverage your CSR policy to align with like-minded companies and build trust. Reach out and engage with other companies that share your values through formal networks, associations, conferences and panel discussions. This will help showcase your company’s CSR commitment and allow you to compare notes and take learning back to your team for future strategic planning, positioning and growth.

The sooner you establish your CSR policy, the sooner you can begin demonstrating your company’s commitment to upholding far-reaching and long-term sustainability standards. And with that establish the leadership, trusted relationships and positioning needed for future growth and success.

Darragh Brennan is the Australia-New Zealand (ANZ) sustainability manager for Solaris Paper and Cottonsoft Limited.

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