Corporate social responsibility: We are the community

“Corporate Social Responsibility is all cost, no benefit.” 

“There’s no provable inherent financial value.” 

“It’s just for show – it’s a PR circus.” 

Sound familiar? On the battlefield of professional opinion, corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been the high ground no one wants to occupy – largely due to inconsistent survey results, questionable economic theories, and inconclusive research findings. 

But a 2015 study, conducted by IO Sustainability partnered with Babson College and sponsored by Verizon and Campbell’s, finally puts the issue to bed for good. Now there is measurable analytic data proving the effectiveness of CSR. 

Project ROI sources over 300 studies from credible analysts and institutions, the majority of which are both academic and peer-reviewed. It’s the most exhaustive research ever conducted on the subject, citing real-world findings from over a hundred executives and CSR practitioners – boots-on-the-ground experts, if you will. 

"Goodness is the only investment that never fails." 

– Henry David Thoreau 

“We’re very happy the report was published this year,” says Propel President Jack Nelson. “While we didn’t arrive at our conclusions in the same way, the study validates what we already do. For us, the decision to operate that way happened organically.” 

We’ll discuss exactly what “organically” means in this context momentarily. First, a little background. 

Project ROI spans a multitude of topics, considering the effect of CSR practices on every facet of contemporary business. CSR may seem dauntingly complex, but its execution can be boiled down to a simple four-corner management framework: Fit, Commit, Manage, and Connect. 

Fit: Core Attributes and Expectations 

Companies are expected to appoint a senior executive champion for the program, setting direction, designing an approach, and managing processes to keep efforts in line with company values. Human Resources Manager Janet Arnold heads up Propel’s CSR program – a responsibility she considers critically important. “It’s serious for us, an indispensable part of how we do business,” she says. “Yes, it’s part of our business strategy. It makes sense on that level. But it is also another way to be a part of this community.” 

Arnold headed up a volunteer team that helped out the San Antonio Food Bank, packaging food to help fight hunger in the city. The nonprofit provides food and grocery products to more than 500 partner agencies in 16 counties throughout Southwest Texas. The team included Propel President Jack Nelson, who happily rolled up his sleeves and donned a pair of blue gloves with his teammates. 

“It’s more than just checking a box to satisfy a CSR requirement,” Arnold says. “We’re doing some good here.” 

Commit: Prioritize, Report, Disclose 

It’s relatively easy to give a name-check to CSR. Truly embracing those principles? That’s something else. Project ROI describes the different types of involvement simply: There are laggards, dabblers, and CSR leaders. Laggards fall behind in execution. Dabblers nibble around the edges of CSR initiatives, but don’t fully engage the people and resources necessary to ensure success. 

CSR Leaders find the right issues – ones that are relevant to their company – and then find the right balance for execution. The “Goldilocks” principle is the key to success, Arnold says. Too much, and you’re perceived as trying too hard. Not enough, and you’re uncaring. 

A company’s President/CEO sets the cultural tone, but the culture evolves as more people become involved in the company. Over time and with smart hiring decisions, the employees become the culture. So determining the appropriate outreach activities to support Propel’s mission was easy. 

“We asked our team what they thought we should be doing,” Arnold says. “The majority of our activities are employee-generated.” 

There were some obvious choices. Propel is founded on the idea of helping people keep their homes, so the company also helps Habitat for Humanity build new homes for low-income San Antonio residents. 

“Habitat is a great CSR partner for us,” Arnold says. “Our missions are complimentary, and founded on the idea of a good home.” 

Propel is headquartered in San Antonio, so they actively seek opportunities in the city. These include the annual employee Make-a-Wish karaoke fundraiser, the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program, Toys for Tots, school supply drives and others. 

It’s not difficult to involve employees in these programs, Arnold says. Workers live in San Antonio. Many of them grew up in the area. “We have a strong presence in this community because we are this community,” she says. 

As the company has expanded beyond San Antonio, so, too, has its community involvement, such as a recent donation to a Habitat chapter in Connecticut. 

Manage: Set Goals, Integrate Strategies, Implement 

Proper management is arguably the most important tenet of the CSR structure. Project ROI defines CSR as an intangible asset, used to mutually reinforce brand and reputation, employee engagement, innovation and R&D, quality management, and overall financial performance. 

But Propel has a responsibility to San Antonio, the city where the company was born, Arnold says. She makes sure the Propel team lives up to its commitment to the city by organizing and sponsoring local events. 

“San Antonio is a very giving city, so it’s easy to find opportunities to help,” Arnold says. “We’ve been here long enough that the community knows we can be counted on. A lot of these activities we’re doing for the third or fourth year in a row. And now, with our recent financial contribution to Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County in Connecticut, we get to see that giving culture expand to a whole new place.” 

Connect: Assess, Outreach, Engage 

The fourth corner of the CSR management framework is where Propel’s “organic” approach is most evident, because connecting with the community is fundamental to the company’s mission. “Connecting is about building trust, which is absolutely essential for our business to work,” Arnold says. If there is no trust, there are no clients. The business model simply doesn’t work without it. 

As a financial services company, Propel is part of an industry characterized by very high public awareness. But the company’s focus is on people, not perception, and the key word in their business philosophy is “services” rather than “financial.” 

"It was never a question of whether or not we were going to help. Our mission is to help."

– Janet Arnold 

The Project ROI study advises administering good social practices across multiple groups, avoiding the perception of favoritism, and a focus on people over the planet while maintaining a balance of “green” concerns. Propel’s involvement with Habitat for Humanity provides that opportunity, as well as supporting the company’s business goal of keeping people in their homes. “It was never a question of whether or not we were going to help,” Arnold says. “Our mission is to help.” 

Project ROI provides ample research support for the validity of corporate social responsibility. For Propel, the many complex concepts discussed in the study can be expressed in very simple terms: We don’t just work here. We live here. 

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