Building a Social Impact Strategy for COVID-19 and Beyond

Through our Tuesday TouchPoints series, we are sharing a diverse set of content we hope will be helpful to those managing through volatility, working from home, or just connecting.

By Cause Consulting Principal and Managing Director Mark Feldman

COVID-19 has brought new, pressing corporate social impact and community investment-related questions to business leaders. Now more than ever, executives across industries see their company’s future success as closely intertwined with the health and economic well-being of their employees and their communities. They are asking, “How should we respond?” “Where should we give?” “What new business risks and opportunities do we need to address?” “What should our company’s social impact efforts look like in the COVID-19 era and for years to come?”

Companies of all sizes have been responding with various approaches. Financial and in-kind contributions have been essential to front-line relief organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), Feeding America and local hospitals. The responses that stand out most are both creative and demonstrate clear connections between business expertise and community needs. For instance, Dyson designing and producing ventilators, Four Seasons Hotel New York opening their doors to front-line hospital workers, RNAi drug developer Alnylam shifting R&D toward finding a COVID-19 cure, Unilever soap brands expanding their global hand-washing campaign to reach a billion people, New Balance funding the development of virtual ”playground-at-home” activities for K-6 students, and CVS Health waiving telemedicine co-pays and delivery fees.

During this period of rapid business re-invention and innovation, consider both immediate COVID-19 responses and longer-term social impact strategies. Based on more than 25 years advising companies on social impact and corporate responsibility, the most important piece of advice I can offer is – do not rush to action; take the time to develop an intentional and strategic approach that delivers against business and social objectives. Stakeholders, including investors, employees, customers, and business partners, have increased expectations about the actions your company will take. They are also looking for alignment with your overall Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) efforts. Recognize that by treating social impact as a core business strategy, you can create greater outcomes for society and your company. Here are some considerations to help craft your approach:

  1. Re-evaluate Your Social Impact Goals and Criteria. Every strong social impact strategy and program portfolio has a set of clearly defined social and business objectives as well as corresponding criteria to guide resource investments. Establish a cross-functional team that taps into the diverse wealth of expertise within your organization, including the most knowledgeable leaders on community, operations, marketing, human resources, and other disciplines. Ensure the process is led by an open-minded, creative leader who is empowered to make decisions. Together, they should answer the following questions, among others: Who are the beneficiaries of our investments? What business goals do we have to deliver on as we put our company’s muscle behind social issues? And, how can we lead and inspire others?
  2. Identify Where You Can Make the Biggest Impact. There is not an issue that has not been affected by COVID-19, including public health, food insecurity, access to technology, social isolation, education, and workforce re-entry. Research issues relevant to your business, talk with your current nonprofit partners, learn from experts across all sectors, and dig into the latest data. Become confident about what you find and then assess its implications for your company’s efforts.  Many of these issues are inter-related, and at the end of the day, focus is essential.
  3. Apply What You Do Best. Identifying and applying “what you do best” is a fundamental practice for companies designing social impact strategies. Think about activating your “special sauce” – the unique skill sets, research & development processes, creative approaches, communications channels, business networks, and other assets – toward addressing complex problems.
  4. Empower Employees. Workplace norms, values, and corporate cultures are being put to the test. Use this moment as an opportunity to reshape and strengthen the glue that unites your employees and fosters engagement. Now is the time for social impact programs that rally employees around your company’s core purpose and values. Provide a spectrum of tangible, hands-on and virtual ways to participate and volunteer.
  5. Create Signature Initiatives. Rather than announcing a series of one-off community investments, create a signature initiative – a branded, differentiated, long-term initiative that addresses a focused issue. When architected well, these programs are multi-dimensional and include financial investments, in-kind giving, employee volunteerism, thought leadership and impact storytelling. AT&T Aspire, Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream, Aramark Building Community, and GoDaddy Empower are examples of ongoing signature programs that have pivoted to help address COVID-19.
  6. Act Now and Dedicate Resources for Later. As you feel pressure to take immediate action, it is highly appropriate to make an initial contribution. However, as with any disaster response, set aside significant resources to activate your longer-term strategy. Many of our communities’ biggest challenges may still lie ahead.

This COVID-19 moment provides an opportunity for companies to make their social impact investments work harder. Intentionality, empathy, and a commitment to human outcomes will serve you well on your journey.

Mark Feldman is the Principal and Managing Director of Cause Consulting, a social impact strategy and communications firm, and has been advising companies on corporate responsibility and program development for more than twenty-five years.