The benefits of giving

The next few weeks will likely be a flurry of activity at work: getting projects over the line before year end, setting goals and budgets for the year ahead, and finishing off all those niggly admin tasks that have slid to the bottom of the to-do list.

And outside the office, you’ve probably got plenty to think about too: buying gifts, ordering festive food and arranging the logistics of your family’s holiday celebrations.

But, if you can find a moment, now is a good time to reflect on how you as a leader and your company gives back all year round.

Social responsibility

Perhaps your team volunteers time to a local charity or regularly raises funds for good causes? The idea of giving something back is central to the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

It’s a bit of a woolly concept and one that often gets dismissed as a PR ploy, but it hinges on businesses striving to be better. Better can take many forms: looking after employees, being more environmentally friendly, engaging with the local community, fostering diversity and inclusion, delivering social benefits as well as financial ones, and more besides.

Ireland is keen to become a leader in socially responsible business and last year published its second national plan on CSR. To inform this plan, in early 2017 a study of CSR in Ireland was commissioned by the Department of Enterprise and Innovation. This report revealed that 84 per cent of Irish businesses view CSR as important.

But CSR is not a new idea.

Long tradition

“Ireland has a long tradition of corporate social responsibility. Long before the term
was coined, businesses were looking out for their staff and the communities in which
they were located,” according to Catherine Heaney, the chairperson of the government’s CSR stakeholder forum.

She continued: “The Guinness family, over the centuries, funded medical facilities, provided community housing and opened public spaces in Dublin. It was altruistic, but it wasn’t just altruism – they knew well that a contented, happy and, more simply, a well-fed and healthy staff boosted productivity.”

According to Heaney, CSR is a “boardroom issue, a competitiveness issue and is crucial in building a more sustainable economy and society”.

Making your mark

A number of Irish companies are setting the pace when it comes to CSR. Last month,
Business in the Community Ireland, a non-profit organisation, announced that four new companies had achieved its Business Working Responsibly Mark in 2018, including BT and Heineken Ireland. This brings to 33 the total number of companies in Ireland with the mark.

The mark, which is independently audited by the National Standards Authority of Ireland, is awarded to companies based on a CSR and sustainability assessment. It looks at policies, leadership, performance and impact.

“Employees, customers, suppliers and many other stakeholders want to know what companies are doing when it comes to environmental issues, work-life balance, social inclusion and much more,” said Tomás Sercovich, chief executive of Business in the Community Ireland.

Strong leadership

For companies that want to take a more active approach on CSR, strong leadership is crucial. According to the Department of Enterprise and Innovation’s 2017 study, seven out of 10 Irish businesses believe that senior management commitment to CSR is important.

CSR initiatives can often be dismissed as tokenism, but socially responsible business is about more than the odd fundraiser or one-off volunteer project. It’s about having clearly defined values and embedding those values at the heart of what your company does. And leaders need to help shape those values, embed them into company strategy and communicate them to employees to ensure the whole organisation has a common purpose.

US author Alessandra Cavaluzzi, in her book A Million Dollars in Change, writes: “Workplace giving and CSR programs, when incorporated into a company’s strategy and embedded into its culture, help to strengthen an employee’s emotional commitment and increase the emotional investment employees make in their company.

“If you take it one step further and give employees a voice, inviting them to offer ideas and feedback about your program on a regular basis, you are also empowering them. Empowerment is a great motivator and driver of engagement,” she continues. “Engagement and empowerment contribute to higher performance, which in turn lead to higher productivity.”

Getting started

CSR boils down to a question of strategy, really. Deciding what you want your company to stand for, and how you want it to deliver on its mission.

Consulting firm McKinsey points out that many companies tend to start with “pet projects and philanthropy” when it comes to implementing a CSR strategy, largely because these sorts of initiatives are “quick and easy to decide on and implement”.

“The question is how to move toward CSR strategies that focus on truly co-creating value for the business and society,” McKinsey notes in a document on maximising the potential of CSR.

It offers three key pieces of advice for companies and leaders: concentrate your CSR efforts, understand the benefits and find the right partners.

Shaping strategy

In a recent article, the Irish Management Institute (IMI) considered the role that leaders play in shaping company strategy. “The reality is that the leader’s role in strategy execution is to create buy-in for change, empower people to carry out the strategy, and influence the process as it shapes and re-shapes,” the IMI article states.

When it comes to building consensus to deliver on a strategy, the IMI suggests that leaders ask simply: “What would it take?”

“The magic question is a method of bringing someone on board willingly and getting them to think strategically about your now-shared challenge,” the IMI article notes.