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CSR is the hot new acronym in corporate PR, standing for Corporate Social Responsibility. Essentially, the idea translates into companies taking care of issues other than their own immediate financial interests--the environment, worker safety, the health of surrounding communities, etc. It's certainly not a new idea, but it's gaining a lot more attention lately.
Like most corporate fads, CSR is typically about 90% spin, but there are companies that are doing important work to make the world better (while making themselves plenty of money). The same techniques that work for giant companies will work even better for small, lean organizations with a commitment to ethical business practices.
What kind of programs can you run?
The simplest way to get started is to donate a stated portion of your income to an organization that resonates with your customers' values. (For example, I donate 10% of my copywriting, consulting and editing income to Smiletrain.) You can donate a portion of your gross, a portion of your profits, a percentage of the proceeds for a particular product, whatever works for you.
You can come up with a little more talk value if you physically engage in something that tells a good story. Build a house with Habitat. Cook a meal for a soup kitchen. Pay your employees for their volunteer time working at charity marathons (hopefully while they're wearing your company hat or t-shirt). If you can imagine photographs of your participation appearing in your local paper, it's a good story. (Speaking of photographs, make sure you capture some!)
You can also pledge your company's commitment to some worthwhile large project--maybe building a library for Room to Read. Or you could sponsor a child or children through one of the many great charities (World Vision is one I like) that do that. Be sure to let your customers know how the project (or child!) is coming along.
Design your program for talk value
Whether you're a large organization or a small one, you want your efforts to be a good world citizen to get talked about. This is a lousy time for modesty. The nice thing is, updates on your charitable work make a great excuse to get in touch with your customers (and the press). And you should feel free to add additional information such as a sale or other offer that brings customers to your door.
Your communication will work best if the effects of your program are concrete and measurable. Look for either a number or a human story. ("Our hybrid delivery vehicles save 40,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions every year.") If they're not concrete and measurable, why are you doing them exactly? It's find to have some "fuzzy" components about respect and values, but make sure you can back that up with results and numbers.
Try to focus your company's efforts on a theme or an individual charity that resonates with what you do. If you're in the construction industry, helping the homeless makes a great theme. (There might even be some good donations in kind that you can make.) If you have a beauty salon, you might consider a charity like Smiletrain that helps the disfigured.
Here's a test of your program's talk value: imagine one of your customers talking with a friend about it. The "My dry cleaner uses silicone-based solvents instead of perchloroethylene" conversation probably isn't going to happen. But "I have a great dry cleaner, and they only use environmentally-friendly stuff" might work pretty well.
Remember to give your customers the language and story points to get out there and talk you up to other people. You'll never say anything about yourself that will be as powerful as what other people can say about you.
It should go without saying, but make sure you're not "greenwashing." It's perfectly ok if your contribution or project is small, but make sure it's authentic and that you feel good about all of the details.
Don't be a nag
Like all communication with your customers, you're here to serve their needs, not yours. It's usually a terrible idea to hit your customers up for donations to your favorite charity. (You can make an exception if that contribution can be used as a payment in full for one of your products.) Contributions are an intensely personal thing. Just do what you do, talk about it in a compelling way, and let the customers who resonate with it respond in their own way. Think of your CSR program as a way to help your customers feel even better about doing business with you, and leave it at that.
Focus on what matters to your customers
Different customers will respond to different kinds of stories. If your customers are women with small kids, find a project that helps poor mothers--and tell your story in a way that brings out your customers' empathy for those women, that puts your customers in the shoes of the people you're helping.
On the other hand, if your clients are CEOs, most of them probably won't put themselves in the place of the homeless--but they may be very receptive to messages about helping the less fortunate. Different story approaches will resonate with different people.
You will, by the way, have at least one customer who will ask "If I don't want to make a donation, can I get a discount?" Smile very nicely and say, "Sorry, that's not how we do business."
Unless you know your customers are very passionate about the environment, you'll usually come up with a more powerful message if your CSR efforts benefit people. Like every animal species, we're biased in favor of our own kind. There's a reason we've reached a tipping point about environmental awareness--it's because so many people can see that global warming doesn't just affect spotted owls. Try to find a human story of individual people who benefit from what you do, and don't be shy about telling that story in vivid detail. (There are a lot of environmental projects that also benefit people--if you want some ideas, visit the WILD Foundation's site.)
Failing that, loveable animal species actually work pretty well too--dolphins, great apes, abandoned pets, etc. Someone should benefit in a way that makes your customers feel good. If your project primarily benefits an endangered centipede, you won't get a lot of customers thanking you for doing such important work.
And of course, consider the political implications of your particular project. Understand who your customer is, what they value, and how they will react to the work you're doing. You should go ahead and do anything you feel strongly about, but don't do it without at least thinking through your customers' reactions.
Feeling guilty about "benefiting" from charitable work?
Get over it. Think of it this way: the more of us who can "do well by doing good," the more attractive it is for others to start pitching in. Leave your hair shirt at home and just get on with it.
Understand that you will almost certainly face some criticism on those grounds. The same argument holds. Doing business without giving back is not morally superior to blending the needs of your business with the needs of the greater society. Not everyone can be Mother Teresa. (Even Mother Teresa found it pretty tough going.)
(This post was inspired by another headline challenge issued by Brian over at Copyblogger. This is a great exercise for sharpening up your own headlines, and whatever you're writing, your headline carries 80% of the impact. As you can see from this post, what you come up with might be pretty far from the original headline source.)