A Model for How Companies Best Lead Social Impact in Their Communities

Many CEOs see the advantages of getting their employees involved in community impact efforts.  Reimagining how you as a company might create social change in the world is not easy.  Below are four different approaches to help you evaluate the kind of impact you are currently making and the kind of impact you might consider for the future.*  As you move from left to right, you move from approaches that are easier to implement to approaches that are very difficult to implement.  

Confetti – Confetti, as we know, shoots out lots of colorful scraps that create quite an experience - even if it is only short term.  In the give-back arena, the confetti approach may involve many small grants and projects, covering a breadth of issues. It is highly flexible, but can lack strategic clarity.  People are encouraged to identify ways they want to get involved, and are often given cash or a matching grant to go make something happen.  In one case, a CEO stated, “We want to help people experience the joy of giving.”  So one year the company gave each employee $750 to give away as he or she chose to do so.  One person used the money to offer a reward program for each class in an elementary school.  Whichever class in the school brought in the most canned goods to feed the poor, this class would receive $500 as the first place winner.  Second place would receive $250.  The result - the combined total of all classes brought in 2.5 tons of canned goods!  

Clustered – These efforts are more focused and address specific areas or needs. The challenge here is figuring out who decides the areas, and what is the strategic broader change that needs to take place.  The giving efforts almost always address the symptoms of a problem and are not in-depth enough to address root causes.  One company’s foundation has as its charter, “to support children and families in need in the ares where we live and work.”  This focused effort channels energy and enables people to focus more clearly on giving opportunities.  For instance, the foundation has sponsored a nation wide “build a bike” program where children in need are linked with a volunteer and together the child and the volunteer assemble a bike which the child can then take home.  Not only does the child get a bike but also the child and volunteer experience the joy of coming together in a spirit of giving and receiving.  

Concentrated – Here companies focus their efforts in a more concentrated way to facilitate deeper change.  A company may address both the symptom and the root issue of a problem.  It requires deep engagement with clear goals and more measurement of impact and progress.  In Chicago, a group of CEOs decided to support charter schools in specific areas of the city.  Employees also volunteered for after school tutoring, reading programs for students, and group meals offered to students.  The CEOs and their public partners made a measurable impact on grades, graduation rates, and literacy. 

Ecosystem Change – This approach is the most complex, and almost always requires a multi-actor partnership focused on a common root issue. The best examples I know of are CEO-led and also involve other invited civic leaders to address system-level challenges. This effort requires building trust with multiple stakeholders and engaging in long-term planning.  The impact can be big because it leads to changing the long term future of a community.  In Minneapolis today a group called ITASCA is leading ecosystem change in work force development, education, and other high level community issues.  The leaders meet once per month to steer specific efforts.  Hundreds of volunteers are involved from the various companies and public agencies.  As a result, a very real positive future is unfolding for the city.  

Each approach above has it’s plusses and minuses.  No one approach is best.  Different approaches will fit different goals and stages of a company’s and community’s growth. 

If you are new to making social impact a priority in your company, a great place to start on the journey is with the confetti approach or the more focused clustered approach.  If you have been engaged in social impact as a core part of your company culture, then perhaps a challenging next step is to ask how you could go further if you linked up with other CEO’s from your community.  Ask, “How do we really get at the ecosystem change that is needed to address specific problems, that if we solve them, will make us all better off?”  “What can we do together, that we can’t do separately?”  Just like the building of a great company, significant long-term impact requires enlightened leaders who can think big, think holistically, and work with a heart for making a clear long term difference. 

* I am grateful to FSG, a non-profit consulting organization dedicated to improving how companies can reimagine social change, for the development of the four stage model presented in this blog post.