This article was originally published on August 13th
When you’re just getting off the ground, carving out the resources to give back can seem like a daunting prospect or even a luxury reserved for larger corporations. It might be good for optics, but it’s costly — or so the argument goes. It’s a time suck at a critical juncture. It distracts you from your core business.
A few years removed from that time with my company, I’m amazed at how ungrounded and misguided those concerns were. This sounds like a cliché, but learning how to give back as a startup — early and often — has been an absolute win-win, for the community and for my company. I don’t think we’ve done everything right — far from it. But there are a few key takeaways that might help other early-stage businesses out there struggling with the how (and why) of giving back.
Activate your employees’ idealism.
The great thing about working with millennials and Gen Zers is that they do want to make a difference. Sometimes all it takes is a little jumpstart to get energies moving in the right direction.
When we moved into our new office in downtown Kitchener, just outside of Toronto, the area was home to several social services agencies, and the clientele they served were often people with drug and alcohol problems. For many of my staff, coming to work each day was the first time they’d encountered poverty in an up close and unfiltered way. But rather than avoiding the example of inequality that sat, literally, right outside our door, I wondered if there was an opportunity for us to make a meaningful contribution to our new community.
All it took was a company meeting to put this opportunity on the table. Could we do better than sidestep the panhandlers on our way into work? Once this spark had been lit, the energy and mood shifted and ideas began to flow. For other businesses, this step is critical — identify a challenge, then put the onus on your employees. Their idealism is real, but it’s up to you to unleash it.
Start small (and lean on the larger community).
After some debate, we decided we wanted to do something that could bring together downtown’s different threads: new tech companies and employees, existing social services, emerging businesses and local residents. Ultimately, we settled on hosting a movie night in an old theatre downtown, giving proceeds to a local men’s shelter. This isn’t exactly jaw-dropping in its scope, but that’s exactly my point.
We also asked for help. Lots of it. In the end, the venue donated its space, a local restaurant contributed the food and people from the charity helped us with the logistics. Local musicians even provided the entertainment. All it took from us was time. There’s a temptation with corporate social responsibility (CSR) to singlehandedly change the world, but I think the most valuable and accessible role to play initially is that of facilitator. Use your operational, comms and organizational savvy to connect charities already doing good with people who want to help.
Get your board on board.
This first movie night grew into a regular quarterly event called PlugIn. We went from a few dozen attendees to a few hundred as what was a side-of-the-desk project evolved into its own registered nonprofit. To sustain momentum and fund the effort, we needed the full support of our board of advisors.
Your board and investors might seem like unlikely allies in building your CSR program. After all, it’s their job to be laser-focused on returns. But if you can make it clear how giving back benefits the bottom line, you might just get their blessing — and maybe even a budget.
For us, this has come down to highlighting how our CSR programs have served as a critical recruitment tool for hard-to-find talent. Not only do we have an edge in attracting a millennial and Gen Z workforce — who often mention in job interviews that they’re attracted to our company because we give back — but our CSR programs have been key in helping us recruit some rock stars at the leadership level.
I don’t want to seem crass when saying this. Giving back should absolutely be done for its own sake. But the reality is that the individuals holding the purse strings at companies want to understand the business impact. The better you show that, the more impact you can have.
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.
We’ve now hosted nine PlugIn events and altogether raised more than $20,000 for various charities. But alongside the successes have come challenges. One example: We’ve faced some criticism along the way that our events can be off-putting to the very people they’re meant to serve, owing to the presence of so many folks from the tech, arts and business community, rather than just the social services community.
I’ve wrestled with this. In the end, I think CSR can be engaging. It can also serve multiple stakeholders at once. Ultimately, the more buzz and energy an event generates — among all participants — the more successful it will be. Plus, bringing diverse groups of people together from different walks of life is kind of the point of our initiative. Not to mention, sustaining enthusiasm among employees is critical to ensuring the longevity of any CSR initiative.
One of the biggest benefits of doing CSR as a startup is seeing how profoundly attitudes can shift. I recently discovered a channel in our office Slack (which we use for internal workplace communications) called Changeyard that some of my team members put together to let each other know about volunteer opportunities. A group goes every week to serve dinner at a local shelter. Some people have gone to donate blood; as a company, we got together to build bikes for local charities. This shift from indifference in our early days to quiet activism is moving. And the best part is that the momentum is only growing.