The calls for companies to take a more responsible role in society are becoming noticeably louder. Politicians are calling on companies to become more responsible, or “practice corporate citizenship”, and so are members of society. Businesses are now expected to see themselves as a responsible member of society, and provide support in tackling social issues. A good number of companies are answering this call. More and more of them are fulfilling their role as “a responsible member of society” and even becoming involved in charitable activities. They do indeed see themselves as part of the very society they aim to shape – in safeguarding their own long-term existence.
Companies become involved in society in many ways, shapes and forms. Activities can range from in-house projects working together with employees, to social causes within the company, and regional, nationwide or even global projects aimed at tacking specific issues. The decision – about which area to become involved in – depends to a great extent on the underlying motivation within the company with regard to charitable activities as a whole.
There are discernible trends in companies’ underlying motivations. Small and medium sized companies have a leaning towards the personal interests of those involved. As a rule it is the owner or manager who selects the social cause, often based on their own personal networks. This was the tack taken by Volker Antelmann, a baker from Radolfzell, when he supported young people who had been unable to find an employer willing to offer them an apprenticeship (see Infobox). Companies also offer support to local sports clubs or similar organizations in which the owner or manager is already personally involved.
The second approach is reflected by the extent to which a certain project or promotion influences activities within the company. The focus: company employees. First and foremost social involvement helps improve employees’ ability to identify with the company, enhance teamwork, and strengthen the social skills of individual employees or the workforce as a whole. These companies support organizations such as clubs and societies in which employees already play an active role, or undertake projects together with employees which will have a positive influence on the working atmosphere. This can range from building a playground outside the factory to organizing a charity fair.
With the third group, the decision of which charitable projects to become involved in, and how, centers on the effect outside the company. Social causes are about positioning a brand or a company in the market. The main priority is how the company portrays itself to customers and stakeholders. In selecting projects and issues, the company makes sure there is a good match with the image and perception the company has of itself. So chemical companies might become involved in environmental protection. The charitable project thus fulfils marketing needs and helps boost company esteem.
These are the three approaches towards social causes – in theory – but of course in practice there are many overlaps and lots of other reasons to become involved in charitable issues. But whatever it is that motivates a company to become involved in a social project, it is important to gauge what effect it has on society or the initiative or organization benefiting from the project. For a company to feel motivated enough to stay involved in a social cause – to shape and support the cause – it is all about win-win.
The Weingarten-based Steinbeis Transfer Center Social Planning, Qualification and Innovation is currently participating in a pilot project called “Unternehmen BE” organized by the Baden-Wurttemberg Ministry of Employment and Social Affairs. Its aim is to promote the involvement of companies in social causes. The Transfer Center is one of five organizations selected within Baden- Wurttemberg and is responsible for the area around Lake Constance plus districts in and around Ravensburg and Constance itself. Each organization is expected on the one hand to promote social involvement, and to advise individual companies on specific projects on the other.
Organizational backing is provided in the form of events aimed at representatives from industry and associations, training sessions, detailed public relations support, and instigating “best practice” projects in individual regions and communities. The center also makes available resources to consult with companies requiring support to implement their social projects or that have asked for advice on implementing their overall social strategy at a company level. Companies interested in support should contact the local office in any of the five pilot regions.