Bushwhacking Social Responsibility

With respect to the many Great companies (the capital “G” is intentional) who have pioneered building social responsibility (CSR) into their company DNA- the journey has just begun. There is no signpost to tell us that a business’s social responsibility initiative has reached its peak, like the tangible experience of finally reaching a mountain summit and planting our flag. The process of developing an aligned and responsive social responsibility program is more like bushwhacking an unmarked trail. At times it can feel like there is no end in sight. But the fact that navigation of social responsibility programming is an on-going and never-ending process is good news for small to mid-sized businesses, really. Such businesses should feel comfortable starting small (volunteer a few hours of services at your favorite non-profit) and build an iterative social responsibility program over time while following the cues of their business environment.

Let’s take a look at one of the Greats, a certified B Corp known for leading the charge of the B movement and, long before that, for working to align its products and its purpose, with a mission to “cause no unnecessary harm” while using business to “inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”.  Take one look at Patagonia’s corporate social responsibility website pages and you’re likely to feel like, for your company, there is a long journey ahead. But if you dive in to learn more from Patagonia, you’ll see that the subtext of their social responsibility programming is this: “We’re just getting started here.” What is it that takes a company from volunteerism to an exhaustive and highly transparent program like Patagonia’s all while maintaining that kind of humility? We think it's making a commitment to a process. And dedicating the process to ever learning, to taking missteps, to re-tracing steps and trying again or trying something new. As a small company with big social impact aspirations, recommitting to the process and to the discovery involved in bushwhacking social responsibility happens on a near daily basis for us.

In a key moment in Patagonia’s history of working for over two decades with “factories that share our values of quality and integrity”, Patagonia finally decided to put those assumptions to the test. In 1991 they developed a contractor relationship assessment, a scorecard that enabled Patagonia to hold a dialogue internally and with their contractors that kept them “largely on the responsible side of social compliance” for factory-based garment production. At that time, Patagonia’s factory scorecard was an informal tool that, more than anything, incited conversation. Then, in the mid-90s, Patagonia became one of the founding companies of the Fair Labor Association (FLA). The course of their mission to “cause no unnecessary harm” over the subsequent 20 years is nothing less than epic. Most recently, in 2015, Patagonia was invited to present at the White House Forum on Combating Human Trafficking in Supply Chains. Patagonia’s unfolding CSR journey is inspiring and daunting all at the same time. None-the-less, it is a powerful testimony to their deep commitment to their process. They are a company that contributes so much more to the world than high-quality adventure gear.

Young and small companies can be unnecessarily hard on themselves when it comes to pursuing and “proving” social impact. Perhaps this is because we don’t yet benefit from the credibility of being a Great like Patagonia. Or maybe it’s because we are incorporating and growing during an age of widespread, lightening-speed iteration and innovation. Everything we do is supposed to be fast and unique. But doesn’t doing lasting good require focus, patience, and time?

In our previous blogs, we covered groundwork for doing good by exploring the terrain of knowing your community and how to #measurewhatmatters. If you’ve clearly identified who or what is the focus of your company’s impact and are even in the beginning stages of figuring out how to capture that impact, you are already well on your way to building a great CSR program. So, are you ready to set further down the path to doing good for the world? Grab your backpack and take some of the questions listed below with you. Think of them as guideposts that you can use along the way to check your actions against your intentions. Be a diligent tracker too. The best way to institutionalize your company’s social responsibility initiative is to document its course. Start by making an actual map of what you plan to do- including what you have already done. Then boldly, and with faith, step onto the path.

Questions to Guide You Along Your Way:  

  1. What does your company do better than most anyone else? Are you a great project manager? Do you read out loud in full character voices? Or do you have a keen eye for graphic design? Identify your gifts so you can share them with the world.

  2. Who on your team have causes that matter to them? Take a poll to discover what matters to your colleagues. You may be pleasantly surprised by overlap that can help you hone where you’ll focus your impact.

  3. Where are the organizations that work on the issues you care about? Find them and connect!

  4. What can you and your team do to support a relevant cause or organization’s work? Ask. Can you volunteer your time? Raise funds for a specific program or need? Expand the organization’s reach by introducing them to your network?

  5. How can your team best support or collaborate on a project? Identify the amount of time that you and your team have to give and the period of time over which you can give it: Are you aiming for short projects with multiple organizations or a long-term engagement with just one? No matter the amount of time spent supporting a cause, your contribution can be just as meaningful.

  6. Did you make a difference? Ask your team and your non-profit partners. Ongoing evaluation of your social responsibility activities can result in long-lasting, meaningful relationships. What good came of your work? What could make your engagement better next time? Do you want to re engage your current partner or find another organization to collaborate with?

Now get out there and blaze your trail!

Title photo credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli