Living a Cause: Six Steps to Philanthropic Impact and Effective Communication

Corporations these days stand on a razor’s edge. Over half (51%) of Americans say that being a good corporate citizen is an important factor in a company’s reputation, according to the 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer Study. On the other hand, stakeholders demand scrupulous fiscal stewardship, and shareholders insist on healthy financial returns. What’s a company to do?

Is there a way for companies to contribute to communities, fulfill philanthropic goals and be fiscally responsible? Should you even try to make a difference these days when mega-foundations seem to be grabbing all the philanthropy headlines? Here’s a guide that can help you have an impact—even if you don’t have a billion dollars.

1. Focus on impact. Be crystal clear about what you want to accomplish. What is your goal? What is your mission?

Narrow and refine your niche so you can make the most difference. Here is an example. The Sodexo Foundation has had a mission to “stop hunger and its root causes.” For 10 years, it was pretty pleased with what it considered a targeted focus. As budgets tightened and impact became difficult to track, the foundation took another look. As it turns out, hunger is a big issue and the root causes run deep and branch out in all directions. The foundation board got together for several strategic sessions to see how it could refine the mission within the realm of hunger. Should it target hunger or malnutrition? Should it focus on children or adults or families? What about underserved populations? Should it eliminate the root causes in order to more clearly impact hunger itself?
2. Be authentic. Audiences are smart.

They will see right through any disingenuous attempts to appear philanthropic or concerned about a cause. They know you’re in business to make money, so don’t try to hide that fact. At the same time, don’t try to hide the good things that you are doing either. The key is to align your philanthropic efforts with your business goals. The best corporate  philanthropy extends the mission of the company itself.

The best path to authenticity is this: Don’t market your cause—live it. Today’s jaded public doesn’t want to be sold on something; they want to see actions that lead them to their own opinions about you. Show them, don’t tell them.

For example, Sodexo’s employees are involved in a lot of programs that embody the company’s social values. During Sodexo’s annual “Servathon,” employees from across the globe engage in local, hunger-related community programs for the entire month of April.

These programs and several others have helped Sodexo make hunger relief part of the corporate culture and the mind-set of employees, bringing the cause to life in ways marketing alone could never do.

3. Report results often and widely, not just at the end.

Employees and customers deserve to know how the company is doing related to its mission (especially if they’re contributing). Beyond your CSR report and your annual report, find ways to communicate how you’re doing related to philanthropic programs, even during the process. Final results are always great, but you don’t have to wait until the end to talk about feedback. Communicate interim results and anecdotes along the way.

Try to ensure that all stakeholders know about your efforts. Include the information and stories in CEO speeches, employee newsletters, in corporate and Foundation blog posts, press releases about related topics and in presentations.

Create and maintain a dedicated Web site for your philanthropic efforts. Update this often with stories and results. Include special sections on your company’s intranet for employees to keep them engaged.

Present the latest research or news articles about your issue overall. These also will help to increase awareness of important issues that could impact them.

4. Live within your means.

This isn’t just true for your household budget; it is equally true for your philanthropic work. Go back to your mission and objectives. If they are huge, refine your niche, then break it down into several phases and yearly goals. Determine your budget based on your tactical needs such as agency support, materials, Web site, creative, staffing, event details and other needs. Then adapt based on what’s realistic.

A tip: Use existing resources. Ask your consultants and agencies if they would be willing to take on some pieces of your philanthropic work pro bono, or add to your existing scope of work in ways that make sense for them.

Vendors, suppliers and other partners can help, too. Find a group of them that share a similar mission for philanthropy as you, and work together for even one event or program. This can extend the reach and impact for all of you.

Use your foundation board and executive team for outreach, as well—make sure they are active.

Don’t forget that your employees are your biggest resource, and they don’t cost extra. Leverage them to implement programs, speak about your charity in local communities, run events and donate money. Be sure to reward them.
5. Stick to strategy.

There’s an emotional story every five minutes. Don’t let your heartstrings get in the way of your well-defined mission, goals, and strategies. Take a deep breath, and remember why you’re involved with your cause—because you care about future generations, because you are committed to helping your company leave a positive and lasting legacy, because you truly want to help make the world a better place to live and work.

6. Use digital media for immediacy, relevancy and feedback.

Communicators now have so many tools to share their stories and to gather feedback, insights and inspiration from audiences. The Sodexo Foundation has a Facebook page, which it uses to solicit participation in food donation campaigns; it uses Twitter to draw attention to employees doing inspiring, hunger-related work; and it created a corporate blog devoted to hunger and related issues.

Paired with video and your creativity, and combined with links to related sites, this can be part of an unbeatable communication strategy.

[Editor’s Note: This article was excerpted from PR News’ Guide to Best Practices in Corporate Social Responsibility & Green PR, Vol. 4. This and other guidebooks can be ordered at]


This article was written by Jaya Koilpillai Bohlmann, VP for public relations for Sodexo Inc. She can be reached at