How Small Business Corporate Social Responsibility Can Drive Success and Social Change

(Recently our response to Upcity's Expert Newsletter about the impact of CSR was selected to be featured on an article published on April 27, 2023. Below is a reproduction of the story).

  Corporate social responsibility is a concept that business owners have long struggled with, though that struggle has evolved over time with the scope of the economy and the focus of consumers.

The need for large businesses to be involved in and protect the interests of their surrounding community, from which workers were drawn and where business was conducted, go at least as far back as World War II. During this period, corporations did all they could to support the homeland population through employment and efforts to fill gaps in the wartime economy.

Post-war movements shifted the scope of corporate social responsibility. Rather than remaining focused on the health of the local economy, businesses operating at an international level were expected to be mindful of the global community and the environment as a whole.

Today, corporate social responsibility (CSR) impacts small local businesses as well as large enterprises. There is a more of a global mindset in play, and consumers want to know that the brands they do business with are doing their part and actively participating in global issues like equal rights and environmental protection.

In this new era, social justice, technology privacy and protections, and climate change are driving trends in CSR across the economic landscape.

In this article, UpCity explores the importance of corporate social responsibility, best practices in CSR, and both the benefits of acting ethically and the dangers of ignoring this responsibility, from the perspective of experts in our community of top-rated service providers.

The importance of corporate social responsibility

In the modern economy, your brand can’t afford to ignore corporate social responsibility in your marketing and business strategies. Because the focus has shifted to large-scale social initiatives and environmental concerns—such as reducing emissions, minimizing the corporate carbon footprint, and operating with sustainability—consumers believe that small local business owners have just as much responsibility to act with integrity and care as do large corporate enterprises.

In fact, studies show that 72% of consumers believe companies have a legal responsibility to protect the community and the environment, and 85% of consumers will have a positive perception of a brand or product when they know that company supports a cause they care about. 

As a small business leader, why is it important for you and your business to ensure corporate social responsibility?

Bringing the issue of corporate social responsibility to our community of experts, we received a variety of responses on why they felt it was important for their small business to prioritize CSR in the coming year.

For some, including CSR concerns in their overall strategy was more important for small businesses, where the community impact could be even more significant and meaningful.

“Small businesses have a unique role to play in CSR because they often have closer ties to their local communities and can have a more immediate impact on their environment than larger corporations.” —Gio Toninelo, Owner/Producer, Rocket House Pictures

For other experts, CSR ties success into the success of the community, ensuring that their business will act in a way that is not only beneficial at the organizational level, but also in the surrounding community and beyond.

“The philosophy of Ubuntu—meaning ‘humanity towards others’ or ‘I am because we are’—resonates deeply with me. It emphasizes the significance of community. I believe this philosophy is relevant to corporate social responsibility. Despite the numerous responsibilities that small businesses must manage, they should not neglect their duty to uphold corporate social responsibility.” —Dan Burt, CEO, Solzorro IT Services

Overall, the key to maintaining CSR is ensuring that it’s a part of your business from inception and that, over time, you’re careful to not allow growth and profitability to detract from your original mission and vision.

“Over time, as (a) company evolves and takes on more staff and customers, it is possible for the company to (move) away from the founding principles. It is important to revisit that mission statement to make sure that operations are still prioritizing the main vision.” —Robert Williams, Owner, Williams Web Solutions

Best practices to ensure a strong policy of social responsibility

While 70% of employees say that they wouldn’t work for a company that showed little to no interest in acting socially responsible, implementing business practices that ensure CSR is easier said than done. Employees are individuals, each with their own beliefs and causes they support, so it can be challenging to get your staff rallied around a unified vision for CSR.

Challenges might stem from leadership, who feel that business profitability is the top priority and implementing CSR programs would only take resources away from revenue generation or muddy the overall brand vision. 

What actions or directives should your business have in place to ensure corporate social responsibility?

Social responsibility can take any number of forms depending on the individual business and the values of company leadership. Implementing different types of CSR could impact a wider range of potential customers who look to brands to contribute to the social good in different ways.

While the discourse around CSR is broad and globally focused, small businesses aren’t always equipped to give back at that scale. While sustainable operations can be achieved, some business owners look towards small-scale, individual contributions that have a more personal and direct impact on specific demographics.

“As a solopreneur (I) volunteer as a teacher for youth, exposing them to the ideas and tools for their own possibilities as future entrepreneurs… Another thing my business does is offer free photo/video services to some non-profits. Their message needs to get out and they can’t always afford the media services they need.” —Danielle Turner, Media Expert, Velvet Pumpkin Productions

Not only are small business owners and startups able to make a more direct impact locally this way, but localized efforts often garner a more measurable return on the efforts made. Many small, local businesses want to back up their efforts with documentation that verifies their contributions.

“Seek out third-party verifications and certifications to back up your claims. Start with localized programs in your area—they’re usually more attainable for small businesses than big national certifications. We’ve gained recognition through local third-party verifications… This raises our profile in our business community, and as a B2B business, that positive visibility is really important.” —Cynthia Ord, Marketing Manager, YellowDog 

Implementing data privacy and protection measures is crucial to any CSR efforts. The rising concern in risk management and cybersecurity circles over data breaches and ransomware attacks intersects with regulatory requirements around data collection. This also overlaps heavily with regulatory efforts that will change how small businesses market and advertise across social platforms.

“We have privacy protection policies ensuring customer data is protected and secure. We also have responsible advertising practices—we adhere to ethical standards in advertising and marketing, such as avoiding misleading claims, ensuring advertisements are truthful and not deceptive.” —Charm Antonio, Operations Manager, Brandlume

Benefits of corporate social responsibility for businesses 

Despite the challenges of executing CSR efforts across your organization, businesses who successfully implement CSR do enjoy a number of benefits that aren’t immediately measurable on an ROI scale. 

What benefits can be gained by small businesses from their corporate social responsibility efforts?

The benefits of CSR arise out of more efficient business operations and improved employee engagement, which contribute indirectly to cost savings in hiring, training, and ongoing retention. Through the perception of being a great place to work, your company can gain a reputation for being a socially conscientious workplace that talent will seek out.

“Promoting social responsibility at our agency…helps us to retain top talent by creating a workplace that values social responsibility and ethical business practices. Second, employee satisfaction is higher, with employees knowing that they are contributing to the well-being of society and the environment…Finally, it helps our business to build a positive reputation and establish trust with (our) customers and stakeholders…who share (our) values and beliefs.” —Nicholas Baudoin, Founder, Alkali

Corporate social responsibility is an especially effective way to provide your employees with a sense of meaning and purpose in their daily grind with your team.

If they feel like there’s more than just profit-driven goals in play, they become much more engaged. Contributing to fundraising efforts, community education, local charities, and other causes can elevate your brand perception in ways other programs can’t.

“There’s nothing more powerful for me than seeing my team be delighted by and proud of the stories of nonprofits making a positive social impact in the world. We tell stories for social justice nonprofits like Asian Law Caucus and Public Advocates, foundations like the San Francisco Foundation and the WK Kellogg Foundation, environmental organizations like Environmental Defense Fund, and more. My team knows that their efforts are contributing towards the missions of these nonprofits.” —Daniel Lichtenberg, Founder and Creative Director, Slow Clap Productions

In a marketplace rife with competition and practically indistinguishable products and services, CSR can help businesses establish a competitive advantage over less socially-focused competitors.

By building the perception that your brand not only offers top quality products or services, but that you’re also involved in missions and initiatives your clients care about, your ability to convert leads and retain customers will flourish.

“We have seen many benefits from our CSR efforts… Our customers and partners appreciate our commitment to ethical and sustainable practices and are more likely to choose us over our competitors. We believe that it is our responsibility to give back to the community and to make a positive contribution to the greater good.” —Jesse Barratt, Founder/Director, Canopy Creative

As a small business, what are the risks of ignoring corporate social responsibility?

Small business owners can learn several important lessons from the drawbacks of not prioritizing CSR in your marketing and operations.

Your ability to expand and capture market share in multiple age groups and demographics could suffer greatly if you don’t prioritize CSR. Ignoring social issues and acting without care or concern to the environment and other global issues can draw extremely negative attention to your brand, which over time could lead to your business no longer being viable.

“It’s extremely important for your business to operate with care and concern when it comes to highly visible social issues…the risk of failing to uphold your business practices to a certain expected standard can truly mean the death of a small business.” —Steven Kohnke, CEO, Partner, Advisor, Denver Business Coach 

The modern consumer, across multiple demographics and industries, is looking for brands that act with an awareness of the marketplace and what’s going on in the world, with 44% of consumers assuming that social issues aren’t important to your company if you’re not speaking out on social issues.

If your marketing efforts appear to be out of touch and your operations aren’t optimized according to your target audience’s expectations, the perception is that your brand is unaware of modern trends and not in tune with the needs of customers.

“Ignoring CSR creates a sense of disconnect from business and the actual real world. Businesses already have to overcome the idea that they are cold and heartless. By ignoring CSR you lack empathy and miss opportunities for new expansion of business.” —Robb Fahrion, Partner, Flying V Group

Perhaps most importantly, your efforts in integrating and implementing CSR programs must come across as genuine and impactful. Increased transparency has revealed large corporate enterprises to be playing both ends against the middle, as they publicly appear to be involved in programs that will make a difference, while privately their actions are doing more harm than good. Small business owners have the chance to capture more market share from their larger competitors by simply acting with integrity.

“Fortune 500 companies spend vast sums of money on greenwashing and ‘social washing’ each year. These efforts are mainly designed to boost their image in the minds of consumers and shareholders. Behind the scenes they lobby to reduce environmental and social justice regulations, continue to underpay women, promote white men faster and higher than people of color, and cut corners when it comes to worker safety, employee benefits, and compensation for lower level workers. Small businesses need to take the high road and lead the way to better behavior.” —Andrew Clarke, President, Ground Floor Partners

Make corporate social responsibility a priority for your small businesses

Your business strategy around corporate social responsibility should align with your company’s vision and mission, and if you feel like there’s a disconnect between how you’re doing business and how you should be doing business, it’s time to bring in an outside consultant.

If you feel that you’re aligned with your goals, but you’re not already incorporating social responsibility into your public relations marketing efforts, reach out to a PR expert on the UpCity marketplace. 

Whichever route you choose, remember that it’s crucial to not only appear to be doing the right things on a surface level, but to actually be seen doing them in tangible ways.

Only through a successful and diverse CSR program will you assure employees, clients, and potential leads alike that you’re aligned with the issues that matter to them, and that your business is intent on making an impact. 


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