CSR and the sharp end of business

Community engagement has for too long been seen as the soft side of CSR. Now smart managers are finding a new use for community engagement - winning business.


 Why do companies engage with communities?

The motivations behind corporate community engagement are many and varied. For some, there is a genuine desire to ‘do the right thing’, ‘give back to society’ (an awful expression really, because it infers that the rest of the time we are taking from society) and be a good corporate citizen. For others, it helps to provide a ‘licence to operate’, while HR professionals will often focus on community involvement as a way to engage, motivate and develop employees. Less publicised will be the desire to enhance corporate reputation – a central pillar to some, a simple, but welcome, by-product to others.

The reality is that a mix of these factors will be at play in most companies with active community programmes. But there is another motivation that is driving a new form of strategically relevant community engagement – business development.

As with the corporate reputation agenda, CSR managers are likely to be coy about this driver, but it is happening all around us. And the great thing is, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it – as long as it’s done properly (more on that at the end of this piece).

The property developer seeking a contract to build in a particular community is likely to make a commitment to local charities well before the bidding process has begun. In doing so, they will make friends in the area and get key stakeholders onside.

Likewise, the utilities company hoping to win a local authority contract to make homes in poor areas more energy-efficient will want the prospective customer to know all about its community engagement credentials; it could just make the difference between winning the deal and coming a close second.

The multinational catering business pitching for new business will be asked by the big name client to explain its sustainability agenda, of which community engagement is a part. Even the private equity company making hard-nosed investment decisions on behalf of pension-holders is starting to have to demonstrate its softer side to the pension providers.

But how do CSR and community engagement managers ensure that their work – too often seen as a ‘nice to do’ – really does contribute to revenue generation? Mirka Packard, who runs the Lend Lease Foundation in EMEA says that "community managers must be absolutely plugged in to the strategic intentions of the business". This means going way beyond the comfort of the HR and corporate communications worlds and communicating regularly with business development colleagues, bidding teams, even those responsible for innovation.

So the CSR/community engagement manager needs to be an internal networker par excellence. But this is not enough – he or she needs to be able to make tough choices when it comes to which community initiatives to commit to. Packard commented that "community engagement must be done in a manner that can be sustained when those business opportunities do not materialise". That is to say (and this is the bit about doing it properly), it must be genuine, it cannot be done with the sole motivation of contributing to success in business development. However, a community programme that genuinely seeks to make a positive impact on communities, and that is strategically relevant to the business, might just play its part in winning new business.

Jan Levy (pictured) is managing director of Three Hands

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