Finding the Holy Grail: Authentic Engagement


Corporate social responsibility, once a feel-good practice that company leaders thought had no ‘hard’ benefits has become a full-fledged industry over the past decade. And the economy is beginning to recognize what Rachel Zurer, Editorial Director of Conscious Company Media, recognizes, “…we’re confident that this isn’t just a fringe movement or an idealistic trend. This shift is real, permanent, and growing.” 

Much of that is thanks to a new wave of consumers taking over America’s spending power. The millennials, and their younger Gen Z siblings, bring with them a desire to purchase from companies that make them feel socially responsible. With this new consumer in mind,  we've seen brand marketers begin to shift campaigns towards media that puts emphasis on their sustainability efforts, a positive cultural ethos, and long-term CSR goals.

After operating in this space for 20 years, it is refreshing to see this shift in mindset begin to play out. Now more than ever we're seeing marketing teams working in tandem with public relations and public affairs (and if they aren’t, they should be.) As we saw at this year's Super Bowl, using the cash-rich marketing budget to expose a company’s positive brand image, can lead to more impactful campaigns. By working together, these departments can ultimately tie ‘who we say we are’ in advertising, to ‘what we say we’re about’ in CSR reporting.

While this integration is a great step in the right direction, and many articles can be written solely about this new dynamic, let's discuss the piece that we see companies consistently missing out on: integrating their strongest asset of all, their people.

When done right, the same brand messages meant to rally customers around a cause or social issue can also rally your people.  So what do I mean by "done right"? In today’s CSR lexicon the term ‘Authentic’ is used quite often, the holy grail being: Authentic Engagement.

Based on results from designing and executing impact-driven marketing campaigns and national CSR-driven team building programs, we’ve found the key ingredient to achieving this is physical involvement at the local level; get-your-hands-dirty, lead-by-example engagement. Going beyond likes, shares, comments, check writing, and cheer-leading, is holding the shovel while your co-worker holds the wheel barrel. 

There is an emphasis on local here because, by aligning with national marketing campaigns, keeping employee engagement local doubles down on the emphasis that a company cares just as much about its employees and communities as it does about impressing its consumers. 

Why does physical volunteering work so well for employees and consumers alike? Mostly for reasons that doctors and psychologists could explain better, but I'll leave it up to human rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory, who said, “One of the things I keep learning is that the secret of being happy is doing things for other people.”

Even though happiness is probably a good enough reason, there are some additional tangible benefits to getting your whole team involved:

  • Respect and Empowerment. Big give-back events give everyone in the organization a chance to participate in ways that are new and memorable. When an employee base musters to overhaul a playground, create trails or renew a music room, they understand that their company is passionate about something local and tangible. And they see that their time is valued not just to crunch numbers or write copy, but its valued as a community member. They understand that everyone from the C-Suite on down has an equal role to play in the company’s mission to make the world better. 
  • Leadership Skills. Someone has to lead people through good social impact projects, and we like to open it up to employees in the company that don't usually get that opportunity. We do the prep work, but giving leadership to smaller work groups gives new voices a chance to be heard in a context that binds groups together. The leader is forced to problem-solve, think on their feet, and communicate to their colleagues, and — in some cases — their superiors. 
  • Cross-Functional. It’s often hard to get out of boxes at big companies. Teams are divided by expertise and sit in different sections of the office accordingly. By inviting individuals to work on projects that pique their interest instead of aligning with their group, they can meet new people, which is often helpful when they’re back in the office.
  • Transformative. We’ve worked in many environments, and if there is one truth to our events, it is that there is always a tangible difference at the end — gardens have been planted, playgrounds built, murals painted and whole communities changed. Our grateful non-profit partners often tell the volunteers exactly how they’re changing others’ lives, too.
  • Relevance. Each brand has a promise and these events are an opportunity to fulfill that promise. Food and beverage companies may choose to fight hunger whereas other brands may champion education, the environment, or gender equality.  Everything is an opportunity to give life to a core message and make it resonate throughout the organization.
  • Whistle while you work (FUN). For the love of all things holy, make sure the music is good. Nothing saps the fun out of an event like bad, or no, music. I cannot stress that enough. If you have multiple groups in different places, that means multiple sources of music.

In total, aligning your assets with a powerful message and activating your employees around a meaningful social impact project can inspire your whole company, beyond what you think possible.