Corporate Social Responsibility for Small Business

David Connor, of David Coethica’s Blog, created a list of several mistakes small businesses make regarding CSR. His readers added some insights and I have a few thoughts, too. There is no reason that small businesses can’t make some changes and implement a plan that coincides with their core business values. Avoid these common misconceptions and mistakes, and your organization, no matter how small, can successfully integrate CSR initiatives into your business.

David’s list:

  • CSR isn’t for small businesses (only large corporations). CSR works for large and small organizations alike.
  • Don’t try to beat the system or cheat. Take a shortcut or fabricate results and anyone finds out – your reputation takes a beating and there is no shortcut out of that.
  • Don’t put in minimum effort and call it CSR. Recycling a few boxes doesn’t make you carbon neutral. It’s ok to start with small changes — just report their results honestly and grow from there.
  • Don’t simply give money away without a plan. CSR does not equal philanthropy. It’s a long-term strategy, not a one-time financial donation.
  • Don’t spend so much time writing a plan, that no one gets a chance to follow it. Formulate some simple strategies and implement them in a timely manner.
  • CSR is too complicated. It doesn’t have to be. See above.

David’s readers chimed in with some great ideas of their own. Gareth Kane and Arjan Tupan add:

  • Don’t expect a direct financial ROI on CSR. Some returns are not easily measurable, and as a long-term strategy, some CSR initiatives might not show results immediately. Don’t base the success or failure of your program solely on that.
  • Don’t communicate your CSR efforts in a weak or preachy way, either to your employees or your customers. This will undercut your sincerity and passion about your CSR initiatives. Neither your employees nor your customers will buy it. If you craft a solid CSR program, do it justice by communicating it confidently and clearly.
  • Don’t give individuals responsibility without authority. This holds true in all aspects of business.
  • Don’t treat CSR as a separate company initiative. Incorporate it into all aspects of your company’s philosophy.
  • Don’t measure without action. Measurement is a good first step. Then work toward improvement.
  • CSR is expensive. Everyone is tightening their belts, and no one expects small companies to spend a large amount on fledgling CSR efforts. Make small affordable changes. Some efforts, like turning down the thermostat, turning off the lights and recycling, can actually save companies money with a little effort and minimal financial output.
  • CSR is a fad or marketing gimmick. Studies and discussion this year alone show us that it’s not.
  • Many large companies have gotten a lot of press for their CSR efforts and some have gotten even more for their high-profile failures, so it’s easy to see why small companies might feel daunted by the idea of starting their own programs. David and his readers did a great job disspelling many CSR myths. The rest of the list can be summed up like this: start small, be honest, and grow from there.

    Many small businesses might feel that CSR isn’t necessary for them to do business, but studies and reports show that customers of businesses large and small care about CSR. In addition, many large companies are requiring their vendors to meet certain greenhouse gas measurement requirements as the price of doing business. Many small businesses might find CSR thrust upon them sooner than they think. It’s always better to craft your own program that is in line with your business and its strengths and values, than to have it suddenly forced on you.

    Essentially, the same principles hold true for companies large and small. Plan CSR around your core business values, integrate it into all parts of your business, implement what makes sense for your company in terms of effort and investment, get your employees on board and communicate honestly with your customers. In other words – get started and do your best, and your employees and customers will respect that.

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at and @anewell3p on Twitter.

One response

  1. Thanks for putting together this post, Andrea. I read David’s initial post and the comments with great interest, and I appreciate your condensing it into one comprehensive post.

    I work on energy and sustainability issues for small businesses in Northeast Ohio, and I find that many of them fall into several of these traps. Unfortunately the terminology we have chosen to use on this issue – corporate social responsibility – is an immediate red flag that causes many SMEs to think this is not applicable to them. But as David, you, and the commenters pointed out, CSR/sustainability is extremely important for SMEs to consider now and will become increasingly more important in the future. Those who take on the challenge now will be able to hone their plans and improve them consistently over time. This will enable them to begin reaping the benefits of sustainability/CSR in the short term, while their competitors stay on the sidelines and eventually face higher costs of compliance and diminishing returns.

    The more that we can work together to make the case for sustainability/CSR for the small business, the better off we will all end up. There are 29 million small businesses in this country, and they may up 99% of all employer firms. If we ignore their needs and only cater to the big guys, we are doing everyone involved a major disservice.

    – Tim Kovach,
    Product Coordinator, Energy Programs at COSE

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