Corporate Citizenship: Basic strategies for any company that is just getting started - Part Two - Manifest Communications
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Corporate Citizenship: Basic strategies for any company that is just getting started – Part Two

If you are looking to introduce or improve your corporate citizenship strategy, it’s best to benefit from the expertise of others who have led the way. We recently asked executives at eight leading Canadian companies what is the one corporate citizenship lesson they have learned that they would share with companies that are just starting out on their journey to create more strategic community investment programs.

Here’s what they had to say:

A clearly defined giving strategy is a must.

Rogers: Peter King, Director of Sponsorships

“At Rogers Youth Fund, our strategy is specifically focused on getting behind after-school, community-based programs that help kids 12-19 with the basic skills they need to succeed both inside and outside the classroom. While there are many great educational programs that exist, this mkes it clear what kinds of programs we support. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to make the kind of measurable, focused, and impactful change we are after,” says King. “While each of our partners is doing this in a way that is responsive to the needs of the youth groups they represent, each is working toward the bigger goal of helping lower the dropout rates amongst youth in this country.”

One of the biggest challenges companies face is “how do we say no?” In so many cases, it isn’t about choosing a good program over a bad program. It’s about picking a good program over another good one. What makes it easier though is a clearly defined strategy and set of criteria that you can evaluate all charitable requests against. This will ensure it is a strategic decision versus an emotional or personal one.

Senior leadership is key.

CIBC: Sharon Mathers, Senior Vice President, Communications & Public Affairs

“The Run for the Cure is an event that started out at the local level. But support runs from the bottom right to the top. Our executive team believes in the value and importance of this cause-related work. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to access the enormous level of employee and in-kind support. It’s something each and every one of us is inspired by and can relate to whether you are a VP at head office or a teller in rural Manitoba and that brings us all together as a proud and united CIBC team,” says Mathers.

Trying to convince senior leadership of an issue that they are never going to be excited about or get onside with is a sure sign that support will never be more than a cash transaction. While money is meaningful, a partnership is much more meaningful. Time and time again, we’ve seen companies try to make the case for a cause that just doesn’t register with senior management. And that’s an uphill battle that no one wins. Because one of the greatest assets a company can contribute is a CEO proudly championing the issue and then channelling the full spectrum of corporate resources in support of it.

Ask yourself: What do we do best? What do we know more about than anyone else? What do we have that no one else has to the same degree? And how can we use these assets to drive problem solving?

Cisco Canada: Willa Black, Vice President of Corporate Affairs

“In the charitable world, companies often forget about thinking about their core assets. They view giving as a nice and necessary thing to do,” says Black. “At Cisco, we believe we are uniquely positioned to do more than just something good. We can do something great by connecting like-minded organizations that want to tackle some of the biggest challenges this country faces with programmatic and operational excellence. A financial gift alone couldn’t begin to address Aboriginal education to the degree that Connected North has the potential to do.” It’s important to note this doesn’t have to be such a literal exercise. In CIBC’s case it wasn’t the financial expertise and know-how of the company that drove its commitment to the Run for the Cure. Answering the question “What do we have that no one else has to the same degree?” showed that its distribution network and tremendous employee base across the country put them in a unique position to truly bring profile and priority to the breast cancer cause. For Cisco, yes, the technology solution was key but as important was the brand’s promise of “connections” that drove problem solving. In both cases, money was just a starting point too – real value came from a commitment to truly champion an innovative solution.

Get to no quickly.

Vale: Erin Satterthwaite, Director, Communications and Community Investment

“Our strategic giving approach ultimately is about our brand and the very direct connection giving has to helping build our brand. But the management of how we say “no” is also important to our brand,” says Satterthwaite. “Charities have limited time and resources to do some great things. We need to respect that. So we pride ourselves on making smart, respectful and quick decisions that don’t waste anyone’s time.”

This echoes what we have seen and heard from charities time and time again as well. Charities would rather hear a quick “no” than be misled for months on end from a company that isn’t upfront and direct about whether or not there is true interest. Be open and honest and no one’s feelings get hurt. Charities will also respect you and your company for being courteous. An early no means charities can quickly move on to looking for support from other companies. And for that, everyone benefits.

Get your brand and/or marketing teams onside early.

Procter & Gamble Canada: Susan Nieuwhof, Director of Corporate Citizenship

“All too often charitable decision making is a separate function under corporate affairs or in the executive suite. If you are looking to lever your social efforts for business benefit, your marketing team needs to be excited about the cause and clearly see the opportunities to activate it. All too often decisions get made about a charity that don’t necessary align with the goals of the business or brands and it’s hard to make something great when there isn’t an internal appetite to do so.”

We believe that in order for a business to do well by doing good, marketing matters. That’s because your charitable efforts won’t speak for themselves, and in most cases, your charitable partners won’t do a good enough job of speaking for you. They’re largely focused on doing the work. Few do a great job at shining a light on your good works. If your marketing team isn’t jazzed by what you support, you can’t expect your customers to be either.

Don’t think about communications and marketing until you have a firm program in place.

Tim Hortons: Scott Bonikowsky, Senior Vice-President, Corporate, Public & Government Affairs

“Companies need to put aside their desire to tell a great story until they have a great story to tell,” says Bonikowsky. “We’ve been in the camp business for decades because our owners truly wanted to give back to kids in our communities. We only started to share this story in the past 10 or so years. We’re in this for the long haul and we’re confident our public relations success only comes from our genuine community relations commitment.” Now this doesn’t mean that a company needs to wait 20 years before it can start sharing its community investment program. But you need to have an authentic commitment to giving back with sustained programming and investments to back you up. A desire to just create some powerful communications to trigger a feel-good response will never survive – consumers can sniff out an empty promise from a mile away.

Make sure you can connect locally.

Canadian Tire Corporation: Landon French, Vice-President, Jumpstart and Community Relations

“This coming year Canadian Tire will celebrate the 10th anniversary of Jumpstart and we will have helped more than one million kids across the country. While the “million kids helped” gives size and scale to what we’ve done, what matters most is that each and every community where we do business has the ability to identify the number of children that have been supported locally. Our Dealers, customers and employees get excited by the program and its potential when they see it at work in their own backyard,” says French.

Companies recognize that customer and employee relationships are important to their success – and social issue engagement is a powerful way to help build and sustain these relationships. Companies also find that they can build deeper relationships with their employees and customers if there is way to activate their charitable giving programs at the local level – both in store and in the community.

You don’t have to be an issue expert to be an issue champion.

RBC: Shari Austin, Vice President, Corporate Citizenship, Executive Director, RBC Foundation

“For RBC Blue Water, we built an entirely new granting program and process based on our commitment of $50 million in funding over 10 years. We developed three types of grants: visionary grants, leadership grants and community action grants, with varying levels of funding and rigour around process,” says Austin. “But for the first five years of the program, we had an advisory panel of external water experts helping us review the grant applications, which was extremely valuable in ensuring that our grant-making was to the right organizations and for the right projects.”

A well-built advisory committee or the right external issue advocates can be invaluable in helping guide you and your giving strategy, and will also ensure that your work is contributing to real change. At the end of the day, you can get behind an issue confidently knowing you have the insights and support from credible issue experts.

Some final thoughts

Having worked in the area of corporate citizenship for the past 20 years, Manifest can say that this is some of the best and most practical advice you can get. Each one is an important lesson. Together, they can help you create a corporate citizenship strategy that will have a positive impact on the issues you care about, and yield the business benefits of increased customer, employee and consumer loyalty and pride.

By Andrea Donlan, President and CEO of Manifest Communications Inc.