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How CSR Can Serve as an Incubator for Business Ideas

By 3p Contributor

By Heidi S. Margulis

“Doing well by doing good.” These are words that many companies live by. From manufacturing to the service industry, companies everywhere are interested in helping the world in a way that also helps the bottom line. It’s a win-win model for business.

Working for a company with this ethos feels different. For example, companies focused on financial profit often have a single department in charge of charitable giving or corporate social responsibility (CSR). But if you work for a company with a double -- or triple -- bottom line, those values are incorporated into everything the company does.

Does that mean that, to do well by doing good, these companies don’t need a team dedicated to CSR, or a strategic CSR plan? Not at all.

In fact, a CSR strategy is even more important for companies with a double bottom line. CSR can serve as an incubator space where companies can test-pilot projects to be expanded to the business at large.

Your CSR team has the freedom to prioritize a single bottom line: what’s best for the world. They can come up with ideas that are most beneficial to society. The best of those ideas can then be incorporated into the business.

To make this work, it’s crucial to align your CSR strategy with your company’s values. This means that all major CSR initiatives you launch will tie back in some way to the company’s mission. That’s the best way to ensure the ideas you discover could be implemented business-wide.

I work at Humana. Our priority is helping people get and stay healthy, which helps the world, our members and our business. Nearly a decade ago, when we began to organize our CSR efforts into a unified strategy, we knew we wanted to align our CSR goals with the goals of the company. So, we focused our CSR approach on improving people’s health. One of our company values is to ‘inspire health.’

I didn’t realize it at the time, but by doing that we set the CSR strategy up to be an incubator.

A result of this is Humana’s Bold Goal Initiative to make the communities we serve 20 percent healthier by 2020 by breaking down barriers to health. This is a signature business initiative, announced in 2015, and its seeds were planted by a major CSR effort.

That project, Team Up 4 Health, focused on improving the health of people in one county in eastern Kentucky. At the time it launched, it wouldn’t have been feasible to initiate a company-wide program on such a broad scale, but what we learned in Eastern Kentucky, in part, laid the groundwork. Our CSR team had to develop strategies, form partnerships and learn from setbacks. It taught us about the community nature of health and that good health can be contagious. And most importantly, we learned about the power of “social circles” or social networks – family, friends, co-workers and neighbors. When you 'Team Up 4 Health' with people in your social network, there’s a better chance you’ll succeed at improving your own health.

Crucially, the project showed us that there were actions we as a company could take to make meaningful change in the health of entire communities.

Soon, we were able to expand beyond CSR.  And last year, we applied the strategies we used and what we learned to our Bold Goal initiative.

We’re now implementing our Bold Goal in seven communities, places like San Antonio, South Florida, and Louisville, Kentucky, where Humana is based— using many of the approaches we used in eastern Kentucky — and we plan to expand the Bold Goal to additional communities.

For companies that do well by doing good, CSR can be a generator for ideas, strategies and your next big project. The CSR-as-incubator approach turns traditional idea-generation around by prioritizing purpose over profit and then following through on what works.

Image credit: Flickr/Jeremy Hughes

Heidi S. Margulis is Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Humana Inc.

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