Corporate Social Responsibility Is More Than a Marketing Ploy

For-profit companies traditionally operated within a set of rules dictated by the government, such as collecting and paying taxes or meeting state and federal regulations. Everyone accepted profit maximization as the goal, and it didn’t really matter how companies managed to achieve that mission.

Today, many judge companies based on their broader impacts and whether they contribute to beneficial change. It’s definitely a positive shift, but new businesses must strike a delicate balance: Too much of a focus on corporate social responsibility (CSR) for a new brand over the effectiveness of the product or service can actually damage brand appeal. Researchers at North Carolina State University found that consumers view new brands as less enticing when their key messages focus on CSR more than the benefits of their products, even if they donate money to good causes.

While consumers want to support brands that give back to the world, they are more concerned about the efficacy of new products. And who can blame them? Nobody wants to spend hard-earned money on a subpar product. When product quality is equal but one item comes from a company with a social mission, customers are more likely to choose the company with a focus on CSR, though.

Patagonia stands out as an excellent example of effective CSR. The company aggressively incorporates environmental causes into its corporate DNA — and its customer base is just as aggressively loyal. Volkswagen, on the other hand, went out of its way to greenwash its corporate image by promoting “clean diesel” while flagrantly violating federal emissions laws with nitrogen-oxide emissions (a smog-forming pollutant linked to lung cancer). The disparity between VW’s mission and its actions had steep consequences.

Finding the Right Fit

CSR should be authentic to the soul of an organization — it should not be an add-on or a marketing ploy. Before committing to CSR, brands need to survey potential customers and brand ambassadors to ensure they focus on the right initiative.

For smaller companies and startups, this could constitute a more informal process of casual interviews with a few dozen people coupled with the founders’ personal goals. Established companies will want to undergo more extensive research that includes surveys and in-depth focus groups with employees, customers, and potential customers. In both cases, companies must confirm that the CSR initiative resonates with potential customers while identifying any concerns that could alienate critical groups. Without genuine authenticity, it’s only a matter of time before an initiative fails — it’s imperative that the CSR mission resonates with the company, its staff, and its executives.

Patagonia earned plenty of attention in 2016 for donating 100 percent of its profits from Black Friday sales to environmental groups. By literally putting its money — more than $10 million, in fact — where its mouth is, Patagonia proved its dedication to protecting natural resources. Considering a large swath of Patagonia’s clientele is environmentally conscious, that single day of sales truly resonated with brand loyalists.

Once a company pinpoints the CSR initiative that meshes with its identity, its leaders must articulate the CSR mission internally and externally. That mission will likely evolve, but it should be authentic to ensure long-term success. A genuine effort at CSR initiatives can be a great way to motivate and empower employees.

Internal CSR messaging focuses on culture and creating a universal message across the company. Everyone should understand the overlap between the CSR initiative and the company’s mission, as well as how the initiative affects every employee’s role. Externally, brands must simplify this messaging into an easy-to-understand version for consumers.

I’ve had to tackle this challenge with my own company, 2920 Sleep. We have boiled down our CSR focus to three elements: a commitment to product quality, excellent customer service, and 1% for the Planet. We aspire to make high-quality, long-lasting products that will have a reduced environmental impact with lower return rates; take care of our customers with great service; and stay financially successful so we can channel one percent of our revenue to support organizations that protect the environment. Our commitment to product quality and customer service enables us to support our CSR initiative. This mission is driven by everyone at the company — from our leadership and marketing teams to our customer service department and our brand ambassadors.

More than anything else, brands should ensure the CSR narrative is a part of the corporate culture. Think again of the difference between Patagonia and VW. Patagonia’s founder, management team, and employees all actively support its mission. VW, meanwhile, has lost brand integrity and market share, and its executives face significant fines and possible jail time.

Consumers can spot the difference between pretenders and companies that are committed to a mission. CSR offers an opportunity to pivot a business from a purely financial operation to an organization that recognizes its ability to help a wider community in addition to meeting financial goals. With a balanced approach to CSR and business goals, companies can truly shine.

Community Health Workers Lead to Better Health, Lower Costs for Medicaid Patients

As politicians struggle to solve the nation’s healthcare problems, a new study finds a way to improve health and lower costs among Medicaid and uninsured patients.

Researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania showed that patients who received support from community health workers (CHWs) – trained local residents who provide tailored support to high-risk patients– had 30 percent fewer hospital admissions in one year compared to those who did not receive CHW support. The results, published today in the

The results, published today in the American Journal of Public Health, also showed reductions in cigarette smoking, obesity, diabetes severity, and mental illness. This is the second clinical trial to demonstrate improved health and hospital reductions with the IMPaCT (Individualized Management for Patient-Centered Targets) CHW program. The annual return on investment for the program was $2 for every dollar invested.

The IMPaCT program pairs CHWs with chronically-ill patients from low-income neighborhoods. CHWs meet with patients regularly to encourage healthier behaviors, and otherwise provide support for the patients’ own health goals.

Emblematic of the kind of patients who benefit from CHW interventions, one young woman was unemployed, struggling with low self-esteem, and had tried for years to lose weight before she met CHW, Saphia Allen. Saphia helped the patient find affordable interview clothes and went with her to job fairs. Saphia also connected the patient to other neighborhood women and twice a week attended get-togethers with the group where the women would go for walks and share their real-life challenges. With her newfound community, the patient lost 10 pounds and successfully gained employment.

In the new study, the Penn team focused on 302 mostly Medicaid-insured individuals who had multiple chronic diseases. Half received regular support from IMPaCT-trained community health workers. After six months, the patients who had received support from CHWs showed better outcomes on several measures, including lower blood sugar levels, lower body mass index and reduced cigarette smoking. Patients in the intervention group also showed greater improvements in mental health, and were 20 percent more likely to rate their primary care as comprehensive and supportive of their self-management of disease.

“This is the second clinical trial that shows improved health and lower hospital admissions for the IMPaCT community health worker program,” says senior author Shreya Kangovi, MD, an assistant professor of Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine and executive director of the Penn Center for Community Health Workers.

In 2014, Kangovi and colleagues found evidence that the IMPaCT model improved mental health and lowered hospital readmission among patients recently discharged from the hospital. “We now have evidence for state Medicaid programs or health systems looking for proven strategies to improve health and lower hospital use.”

Based on the reduction in hospitalizations seen in the studies, the University of Pennsylvania Health System estimates a return on investment of $2 for every $1 spent on IMPaCT.

“As a nation, we have spent years arguing about healthcare. We need to focus on getting people healthy while reducing spending,” says Ralph Muller, CEO of the University of Pennsylvania Health System. “This program accomplishes both of these goals and shows us a way forward.”

Individual vs Collective Impact

At a meeting with one of my regular clients, I was reminded of an important tension and interesting phenomenon in organisational dynamics, and it is blogged about ad infinitum.

The tension is the value of meetings over that of individual productivity, and the phenomenon is the power of “collective influence” (Alex Smith).

meetingMeetings get a bad rap these days. Particularly online businesses favour virtual teams, online collaboration, etc. Alex reckoned 90% of meeting content is irrelevant, people are busy, and time is precious.

On one hand, I agree that meetings can be wasteful. Personally, I avoid them if I can. But, what can we learn when we look deeper at individual impact versus collective impact?

There is a difference between a meeting and an intentional gathering or conversation. As I said at the meeting today, I have been in several of the latter with another regular client. Everyone is pressed for time, the gathering is delayed…

However, every time when we finally meet either during or afterwards, something magical happens. An opportunity, a breakthrough, and/or a request for what we offer.

I describe this as a dynamic or energetic outcome, and I’m waiting for what will emerge from this week’s meeting.

If you’re arguing about whether individual productivity or meetings are more important, please stop. It’s a useless conversation.

The conversation should be about how to harness the benefit of both individual and collective impact. The questions are, what is a good balance, how are they organised, and what are the intentions?

The answers? Well, you tell me.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Collaboration for Impact

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