We all know people will reward companies they believe are good corporate citizens. Yet, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the “halo effect” of community involvement is no longer a given for companies that give back. According to our latest research report at Changing Our World—The Authenticity Opportunity—people are becoming increasingly savvy and skeptical when it comes to companies’ good deeds—with 75% believing companies’ support for social issues or causes is more talk than action, at least some of the time.
Not only does this stat represent a missed opportunity for customer and employee loyalty, it also connects to another critical finding: 67% of people are likely to speak out against a company they believe is inauthentic in its actions, or claims, around social issues.
Given the term ‘authenticity’ can be nebulous and difficult to define, you may be wondering what makes for authentic community engagement. The good news is there is consensus across age and gender about the core factors that contribute to credible, impactful and buzz-worthy citizenship efforts – that is, the type of programs that shine a positive spotlight on companies, rather than making them a target for accusations of hypocrisy, boycotts, or PR backlash.
Here’s what we found:
- Strategic Planning Pays Off. A clear and thoughtful plan for citizenship programs doesn’t just make them more effective – it actually earns credibility. 76% of people say the most authentic corporate citizens have a long-term plan for how they will support a cause, whereas one-time and reactive efforts and campaigns are deemed inauthentic, leaving companies exposed to negative backlash. This is an important wake–up call for companies looking to make a splash in the short-term, without a genuine commitment to the future. It’s also a reminder for all companies to regularly set and assess goals, bringing key stakeholders into the process to ensure alignment with business and social priorities.
- Skin in the Game is a Must. People look most favorably upon companies that contribute their own resources to a cause, with monetary donations rating highest. On the other hand, efforts that rely on the generosity of others—without a significant corporate investment—come off as less sincere. Companies should think twice before enlisting employees and customers in their fundraising and community engagement. While such efforts can certainly bolster an already robust program, without ample skin in the game, that flashy cause marketing initiative or employee giving campaign may raise eyebrows or create resentment among your core constituents.
- Leverage What’s Core. 73% of people believe a company’s community involvement efforts are more authentic when they align with the company’s unique business assets. Take for instance, Union Pacific Railroad.* In partnership with community development nonprofit LISC, Union Pacific supports skills training for the Transportation, Distribution and Logistics industry by lending its employees’ time and skills, as well as sector expertise, to inform programs that connect participants with potential job opportunities. In addition, Union Pacific’s partnership with Safe Kids Worldwide leverages the company’s expertise and experience in the development of rail safety tools, including Clifford and the Railroad Crossing, a book featuring Clifford the Big Red Dog™ which the company distributes throughout its vast network. These efforts all highlight Union Pacific’s unique assets and complement the company’s multi-million-dollar investments in its nonprofit partners.
- Third Party Advocates Rule. It’s no secret companies want to be recognized for their contributions to society. Not all recognition is considered equal, though. People are 3.5X more likely to respond positively to a nonprofit’s description of a corporate good deed than a company’s own advertising. In addition, friends and family, news articles, employees, and customers all rank as more credible than a company’s own website, social media, and advertising, in this regard. For this reason, companies should think twice before spending too much to toot their own horn, and invest instead in building meaningful partnerships that achieve credible and buzzy-worthy impact.
*Union Pacific Railroad is a client of Changing Our World.