By Stephanie Smith
You’ve heard the phrase, Be the change you want to see in the world. When companies want to help make the world a better place, they call Susan McPherson. The CEO and founder of McPherson Strategies helps companies including Intel, JC Penney, Tiffany & Co., Salesforce, Axiom Technologies, and Participant Media craft their social responsibility and impact initiatives. McPherson started her business in 2013 after bringing more than two decades-worth of experience in public relations to the table—including at Fenton Communications, a well-known communication firm representing a roster of NGO and advocacy groups. (Fun fact: Nelson Mandela was an early client.) Below, she outlines how even the smallest business decisions can help do a world of good.
Some start-ups are hesitant to make social responsibility part of their business. Why, and what can companies do to help make a difference?
For years, many people thought, ‘let’s worry about that if we make a profit.’ Or people think, ‘Is this going to take me off the course to profitability?’ ‘Is this going to take too much time and resources?’ One strategy companies can take is to partner with an organization that specializes in social responsibility. If, for example, your company makes pasta, it doesn’t make sense for you to help refugees. There are programs for that —so you pair your best brains and their best brains to do so.
In what small ways can companies support a cause, even if they are a start-up?
When you are in the planning stage the best thing you can do is look at your employees. The most successful social impact plans are ones started by employees. Sometimes you need one employee to be the rallying charge.
From a small biz perspective, it can be as simple as buying a table at a gala and bringing their employees along, or having a volunteering day and giving them a day of paid volunteer time.
Or, you could be like some companies who have turned to education—like those who have supported Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code, which helps girls get access to STEM-based education. Think about what employees are passionate about, and what’s going to get customers excited, too.
For example, I’m on the board of the Lower Eastside Girls Club, a New York-based organization that serves girls aged 8 to 18 who live in one of the most economically-challenged parts of the city. The companies who have been interested in being involved with the organization range from Deloitte to big banks because they see these girls as their future employees or customers.
What are some examples of companies that have successfully made social impact a core part of their business?
Unilever is a good example —the three brands that Unilever has invested in for social good are the most profitable in their portfolio. They are Ben & Jerry’s, LifeBoy soap (sold in developing countries) and Dove. Meanwhile, Adidas is using recycled plastics from the ocean to make running shoes. You have to be living under a rock to see how many pieces of plastic are littering our waterways, and look at how many single-use plastic things we use every day. Dell is using ocean plastic to go into the packaging system used to ship their computers. American Express came out with a new credit card that’s not made of plastic. These socially responsible moves are not tangential, they’re part of the supply chain. If everyone does something, it’s going to help.
What industry benefits will start-ups reap by having some sort of social responsibility tied to their business?
The best employees want to work for companies that are giving back. When you’re thinking about building your business, surrounding yourself with quality employees that want to stay and are most productive gives you a leg-up above the competition. Here’s another example: Microsoft matches up to $15K in charitable donations per employee—as in, if I write a check for $15K, Microsoft will match that. So, my donation becomes a $30K check. It’s a great benefit, and it helps them attract the best employees.
Say I’m a single owner of a business, what can I do?
Say you’re a developer—you can train kids on how to code. You can sign up for a non-profit to help the underprivileged learn how to code. Alternatively, you could write a check to an organization and get a tax deduction. Or, you could volunteer with the Girl or Boy Scouts and volunteer to teach kids how to code. Simply put— it’s walking the walk and talking the talk.