9 Tips for Socially Responsible Businesses


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Josh Friedman and Mark Grimes launched Better World Media Network to help find the right advertising partners for Web publishers whose aim is to improve the world. The business owners want to do right by society, but they also don't want to limit their vision of financial success.

Says Friedman, "We want to build a for-profit business and do good in the world." Here are nine tips for the small-business owner who wants to be socially responsible while still growing that bottom line.

What's Important to You?

Before taking up a cause or adopting any platform, examine what is important to your business. But also keep in mind the needs of your company. Being socially responsible and operating a successful business are not mutually exclusive.

"The best definition of social responsibility is a phrase that isn't exactly original: doing well by doing good," says Phillip Gordon, director of the Center for Socially Responsible Business at Mills College's Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business. "Figure out where your business intersects with society. Then sit down and think where you have the most impact and if you have a high impact, where can you get some benefit for your business."

Clean It Up

According to Giving USA, one of fastest-growing charitable areas is the environment. Do your share by streamlining your packaging and going paperless. Lower your company's energy bill by investing in energy-efficient equipment. Offer to plant trees for every product or service that gets bought. For every customer who elects to receive quarterly statements electronically via email rather than on paper via snail mail, TIAA-CREF plants a tree.

Find Like-Minded Partners

More and more customers and investors are looking at the supply chain, says Scott Budde, managing director of Global Social & Community Investing at TIAA-CREF. So although your product may be eco-friendly and your company has a strong social responsibility policy, you must hold your partners and suppliers to the same standards. Otherwise, your promise of social responsibility can be seen as an empty one.

Pitch In

Time is money. Allow employees to volunteer during company time. Donate your time, as well, but perhaps do it within your area of expertise. For example, in 1990 Marriott started Pathways to Independence, a program that helps people get off welfare by training them in jobs in the hospitality industry. "Marriott gets two things," explains Mills College's Gordon. "They reduced turnover because the people they hire know how to do the job and they're grateful. They have also been able to develop the low-wage entry level workers so they've reduced turnover in general."

Volunteering is free and will engender good will within the community and the workplace.

Donate Products

They say the best publicity is free. So donate your goods and generate word-of-mouth buzz when people wear your product. Management consultant Martha Fields praises Timberland's partnership with City Year, a Peace Corps-like nonprofit aimed at helping urban communities in the U.S. and South Africa.

Timberland supports City Year in part by providing clothes and gear to its volunteers. "They have also used these volunteers in marketing efforts when they do urban clothes and use them as focus groups," she adds. "It's a wonderful relationship."

Contribute Financially

Better World Media Network plans to donate 10% of its profits to nonprofits and micro-financing. The founders hope to work closely with Kiva.org, which allows companies and individuals to select from a list of entrepreneurs from around the world to which they can loan.

Improve Yourself

Figure out if your product is being designed and manufactured in the most eco-friendly, efficient and humane way possible. TIAA-CREF's Budde, who is also author of Compelling Returns: A Practical Guide to Socially Responsible Investing, points out that Starbucks has in part been successful in convincing people to pay more for their coffee because of such practices as selling fair trade beans.

Fair trade products "give you the ability to create a heightened added value. You'll attract highly desirable customers, even create brand loyalty," he says.

Put Employees First

Today's tough economic climate may make donating money and time difficult. At the very least, says Gordon, be a good employer. He suggests before laying people off, consider cutting their hours or asking employees to take voluntary unpaid leave or share jobs.

If layoffs are inevitable, then do it as respectfully and humanely as possible, says Fields. How you treat these departures will have an impact on the morale of people left behind. "They have survivor syndrome. People left behind are going through some trauma, and at the time you need for them to be productive and have their morale up."

Advertise Your Position

Being socially responsible has its financial rewards. You'll attract a different clientele, and in some instances, a customer base with a higher income. You can use it as a marketing tool to stand out from the competition. You can also use it as recruiting tool to attract the employees and partners you need to grow.

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