In recent years, the expectation that CEOs and companies will support at least one key social cause has mounted—to the point that no reasonable CEO can ignore it.
How did we get here? Back in the olden days, companies might show their social responsibility making a one-off donation to a charity (maybe handing over a novelty-sized check at halftime of a football game, for example). They’d make the gift, reap some good PR, and get back to work.
As time passed, the bar was raised. In the mid-1990s, the concept of corporate social responsibility came to the fore. This new standard saw companies engaging in more sustained giving through foundations and charitable programs. Then in 2004, the term ESG entered the lexicon, referring to the environmental, social, and governance responsibilities of a corporation. ESG was coined in a paper called “Who Cares Wins,” written in response to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s call to fifty top corporations to incorporate social responsibility into their investing activities. Within a decade, ESG had become a nonnegotiable concern for major corporations. Since 2015, Harvard Business Review’s annual ranking of CEOs has taken into account not only the firm’s financial performance but ESG factors as well.
But now, the pressure has taken on an additional dimension. With the rise of a new generation—the diverse, extremely online, and highly socially aware Gen Z—expectations have again been raised.
Gen Z and New Expectations for Employers
Gen Z, now up to age 25, are the fastest-growing generation of consumers and the most influential group of trendsetters, and they are critically important for employers in almost all industries. They have come of age expecting—some might say requiring—companies and their CEOs to take much more tangible action in support of social causes than ever before. The old oversize-check method won’t work with Gen Z (many of them have never used a check in their lives!). And they don’t expect just lip service: They want transparency, candor, and measurable action in support of social causes. To them, business is about more than pure profit. This is not a fad, but a generational shift that is poised to have a lasting impact.
Gen Z, which we research extensively in our annual State of Gen Z® Study, cares deeply about causes ranging from protecting the environment to providing healthcare and housing for those in need. They not only vote with their wallet, driving almost all major consumer trends; they also represent a segment of the workforce that employers must attract and retain to stay competitive for the future.
The results of supporting a social cause have a whole cascade of positive effects.
Is It Worth the Effort?
Putting time into social causes might sound like a lot of work, maybe even a distraction from more important things. And, some may ask, do we really have to listen to the demands of these newbies?
But when done right, the results of supporting a social cause have a whole cascade of positive effects. Many of the first movers who have embraced this approach are finding ROI in sales as well as in employee morale. On top of doing good in the world, you attract and keep loyal customers, employees, and advocates, particularly those in Gen Z—but also members of other generations who are following their younger peers’ lead. In addition, ESG funds and retail investors increasingly want to invest in companies whose leaders have a commitment to improving the world and delivering good returns.
Choosing a Social Cause
So, how do you go about getting involved in a social cause?
Historically, the initial social cause a company undertook was reflective of its founder(s) and the causes they wanted to support. The rise of the corporate foundation broadened the diversity of the social cause companies supported. But when it comes to selecting a social cause today, it’s wise to look near the intersection of your industry, your consumers, and your employees. Listen particularly to the latter group. What topics are they impassioned about? Is the scope local, international, or somewhere in between? Is there a cluster of causes that would make sense to pursue simultaneously, helping everyone feel included?
Once you have identified a cause or causes, the easiest path is to make a financial donation. That’s a good start, but action will go a lot further. This could range from offering paid time off for employees to volunteer their time and creativity, bringing in experts to discuss the social cause in-depth, supporting relevant legislation, or integrating the cause into operations—such as how you handle the supply chain or wages. Some companies even make their social cause a core part of their business model, such as the “you buy one, we donate one” approach of TOMS, Bombas, Warby Parker, and many others.
Publicity and Its Pitfalls
Determining how and when to message your efforts around a social cause is an important strategic decision. As you think through both internal and external communications, avoid “greenwashing.” You’re greenwashing if you loudly tout your righteous work when the actual efforts made are superficial or a façade.
Greenwashing has long been an issue. Take National No-Print Day, created by Toshiba’s America Business Solutions division in 2012. On NNPD, individuals and companies would be encouraged to refrain from printing as they reflected on the ills of deforestation and paper waste. A broad campaign was spun up in preparation for the big day, but soon critical voices began pointing out potential inconsistencies. Toshiba itself didn’t have the best record on paper sourcing, and the focus on paper distracted from the significant carbon impact of the company’s other product lines. Once the printing industry weighed in against the day, it was scrapped and never heard about again.
That was 10 years ago. In the last 12 months alone, Gen Z and social media have already proven highly effective at surfacing greenwashing at a much faster and more intense rate than ever before. Be sure your communications are accurate and backed with meaningful action. The plus side of this sensitivity to greenwashing is that when you do live up to your commitments, employees and other stakeholders will be especially excited to support you.
The best approach to publicizing your efforts around a social cause is often to invite those involved to message it for you. If your employees are volunteering, highlight them and let them share what they are doing and why in their own words, posts, and videos—as long as they comfortable sharing it. (You never want to pressure them to do so, obviously.) In addition to traditional forms of external communication, such as your website and social media profiles, don’t forget internal messaging as well, including company newsletters, Slack channels, and other internal messaging tools. When in doubt, let your actions and impact speak for themselves.
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A whole host of stakeholders, from Gen Z to Boomers, from employees to customers to investors, are looking for CEOs to deliver on the company’s “second bottom line”—its social impact. Now is the time to start or enhance your efforts. Doing so is a double-win, not only will it strengthen your business but you’ll be doing good for the world, too.