Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which some observers interchange with Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), has become more and more important to businesses across sectors.
Tender frameworks, especially in the public sector, increasingly ask for CSR or ESG strategies from suppliers, and investors, consumers and potential new employees are unafraid to ask the businesses and organisations that they support or are considering joining to demonstrate their community commitments.
With businesses distracted by supply chain issues, recruitment challenges and inflation, it could be easy to assume that CSR and ESG has taken a backseat, but this is far from the case.
We have recently worked with clients including Barker and Stonehouse, Harrogate Spring Water and Newcastle Helix on communications strategies that articulate a clear commitment to net zero and social impact. Having a defined, actionable CSR strategy in place can not only help your bottom line, but also boost audience perceptions and strengthen your employer brand.
This is why we leapt at the chance to sit down with Michelle Cooper (pictured), Chief Executive of the County Durham Community Foundation, to get her thoughts on how community relations can be an integral part of an effective CSR strategy, and why these strategies are more and more important to businesses.
About the County Durham Community Foundation
An independent, grant-making charity, the County Durham Community Foundation ‘the Foundation’ provides much-needed support in communities across the North East. By working directly with businesses to match CSR and ESG funds to local initiatives, the Foundation is focused on fighting poverty and enriching lives in the communities that need it the most.
The Foundation has awarded £57m in the last 27 years, with £22m of this awarded in the last five years. From COVID support to cost-of-living grants, CSR funds are distributed across the region, with the work of the Foundation underpinned by the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. In recognition of the impact the Foundation has, it has recently been shortlisted in the Community/Voluntary category for the LocaliQ Business Awards.
With a background in business development and innovation, Michelle is acutely aware of the pressures businesses face when deciding whether to invest in a CSR/ESG strategy.
“We are here for businesses that have great values, and want to express those values to clients, potential clients and local communities by maximising the way they give,” says Michelle. “It is about weaving giving and community impact into the very DNA of a business.”
“There are many businesses we work with that have grown around the values of their founders, and a commitment to sharing success. Back in 1997, we started a relationship with The Banks Group and helped them start their incredibly rewarding Community Fund.
“That business has helped so many people through the years, and by starting the Fund, has also found other ways to give back. To date, the team have given £50,000 to our Poverty Hurts Appeal on top of everything else they do, which is staggering.
“The team at The Banks Group has a keen interest in giving back, so there has never been any need to persuade them of the benefits to their business. They work with us to direct grants to the community projects that will generate the greatest impact to local people. This helps to engage The Banks Group with those residents around their developments, but also demonstrates the values and principles they abide by as a business.”
The benefits of CSR in action
It is this showcasing of principles that Michelle highlights as a clear benefit to CSR strategies, particularly for businesses operating in deprived or hard-to-reach communities.
“The great thing about an effective CSR strategy is that it empowers you to think and take action locally,” she explains.
“It’s about supporting local projects and people, and building your reputation in the region as a great place to work, and to work with. This has an even greater impact when this is a long-term, multi-year strategy, baked into the entire lifecycle of your business.”
Michelle points to the example of Darlington Building Society’s 5% Pledge Fund. Now in its seventh year, the Fund offers grants to charities that can demonstrate clear impact. This encapsulates the organisation’s values as a mutual building society, enhancing its regional reputation, helping to attract and retain talent, and generating dozens of positive stories.
Pledge funds such as these can be a structured and effective way to give long-term, avoiding ad hoc patterns of support that may lack forward planning, and offering budget clarity when mapping out corporate investment.
In essence, CSR, ESG or giving, whatever you want to call it, is built into your budget annually.
The importance of structure
The Pledge Fund is also a clear example of a measurable, data-driven ESG strategy.
“Structure is what defines truly impactful campaigns,” adds Michelle.
“The work we do at County Durham Community Foundation is all about creating a structured way for businesses to give. At the beginning of our conversations with businesses, we define their purpose, what their level of giving (or investment) can be, and what they want to support.
“For example, a business working in the renewable energy sector may want to focus on climate or environmental projects, or working with young people to build aspirations in a local community. We match that business with the charities on the ground that we know have the greatest impact in those particular areas of focus.”
The ESG journey doesn’t end once the grant has been made. Robust, structured reporting is also a critical part of an effective strategy, with Michelle and her team working with charities to gather detailed information on how the funds were spent, how they met the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN, and the overall impact on the community.
This is accompanied by visits, case studies and photography, giving businesses a handy toolkit to publicise their CSR activity and demonstrate achievement.
In challenging economic conditions, when budgets may be tight, setting and following through with an effective CSR strategy can feel overwhelming. However, Michelle stresses that the most effective CSR strategies aren’t necessarily the ones with the largest budgets.
“Focusing on local impact can often be the best way to generate clear value from your CSR campaign, even when your charitable giving may be reduced,” she explains.
“Many businesses support our Poverty Hurts Appeal for that reason. They can give at any level, whatever is sustainable for them, and they know it is helping local people in serious need.
“Businesses can also achieve a lot by really connecting with their staff, staff who live locally, and finding out what they care about at grassroots level. By engaging a workforce, you may learn about a local foodbank, or a charity they support through their children’s school. Having those conversations is so valuable.
“From there you can consider opportunities for volunteering, as time can often be as valuable to local projects as a financial contribution.
“The advice I always give businesses is to ask charities what they need. If you are a law firm, could you look over a few contracts for a charity? If you have an expert social media team, could they help set up an Instagram account for the charity? And be consistent – 30 people turning up for one day is lovely, but not always helpful. But offering one day a month or a week, allows planning and structured volunteering.
“Look at the skills that your business offers, and match those with the need in your local area.”
Meeting corporate objectives
Effective CSR strategies not only do good in local communities, but also align with corporate objectives.
This is especially important for sectors such as green energy, or developments in planning stage, where engaging with local stakeholders can be a critical part of building a positive reputation.
By working with funders like the Foundation, businesses can utilise the expertise of those who live and breathe charitable giving, ensure that their ESG investment makes a significant contribution to the local area, and receive robust reporting to ensure that giving aligns with commercial objectives.
With businesses having to look more closely at their budgets and bottom line, CSR and ESG giving must be done effectively and efficiently. By putting the right structures in place, choosing the right charities and utilising the knowledge and local contacts of your own workforce, you can help to ensure that no pound is wasted.
“A good CSR budget is also a good marketing budget”, Michelle concludes.
“Giving works best when it is part of the values and culture of a business. But we do encourage the businesses we work with to share the good that they are doing.”
Charities welcome the opportunity to talk about the support they have had from businesses, as it also shines a light on their impact – so don’t be afraid to use your giving in your comms.
“Having a well-communicated CSR strategy also helps you to recruit and retain staff, who will be drawn to your purpose as an organisation.” says Michelle.
“It improves staff morale, meets investor and procurement demand, and helps build strong community relationships.
“Put your values into action and reap the rewards!”
Find out more about the County Durham Community Foundation by visiting https://www.cdcf.org.uk/
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