Child holding the world in its hands

In Our Hands: Corporate Social Responsibility

You want to develop a corporate social responsibility program? That’s fantastic! That’s what I’m doing at Avista, and while I realize we’re not going to save the whole world this way, we can help some corner of it.

What is it that has you interested in a CSR initiative?

Do you want to do the right thing? Save money? Be better to the environment? Solve a PR problem? Engage employees? Address a community issue?

Whatever your motivation, there is plenty of evidence that strategic CSR programs can be both good for business and good for the world.

My expertise is making a vision a reality. My related experience is over 20 years of volunteer coordinating and environmental activism both professionally and as a volunteer.

How Did Avista Get Started?

Soon after I was hired, Jeff Taverna, one of Avista’s founding partners, asked me to be accountable for our company’s participation in an annual fundraiser for the MS Society hosted by one of our partners. The golf event was an opportunity to raise money for an important nonprofit, and also a day of networking. Avista had participated in previous years, but Jeff wanted us to up our game.

As we prepared for that event, he shared with me his vision of our team volunteering together. Our office was in a building that hosted blood drives twice a year with the Red Cross, and he wanted us to be involved. When he heard about my story as a bone marrow transplant recipient, he spoke of a friend who had also had leukemia and of how highly he thought of Be the Match – the organization that matched me with my donor five years ago. Later that spring, when I told him I would be walking in the Be the Match Walk+Run, he asked if Avista could join me and said he would like our company to make a contribution to the organization. I certainly was not going to say no!

From talking with peers who work at comparably sized companies and who would like to get a CSR program off the ground, I know that, in so many ways, I had it easy. At Avista, getting buy-in from the boss was not even an issue. It was my boss who was driving the core idea, even if he was not thinking of it as an organized program with strategic business goals.

If it is buy-in from the boss you need, you might want to try this article from the Harvard Business Review. If you are looking for how to make a case for CSR, I wrote about how it is good business in a previous post.

In our case, the leadership was in agreement.

Bob White, Avista’s other founding owner, and later Rob Mendel, were fully on board. It was important to Bob that Avista’s culture grow around our company caring exceptionally not only about the work we do, but also about the world we do it in. He also believed that for many of our employees, Avista’s involvement with volunteering would contribute to our organization being a great place to work. When Jeff left to start a new company, Optimize Communications Services, Rob stepped in as the primary champion for our developing CSR program.

In the Beginning

Everything has to start somewhere.

Since the early motivation for a CSR program was the leadership’s desire to do good in the world and to build relationships in our team through volunteering, the core of our CSR is an employee volunteer program.

I planned the MS Society golf event and arranged for Avista to participate with my team at the Walk+Run. I contacted the Red Cross and got us involved with the next blood drive in our building. After talking with our team members about causes and organizations they care about and hearing that childhood illness was high on the list, I also signed us up to volunteer at Ronald McDonald House and got pop tab collection houses for our office. We were off and running.

Experts advise having more of a plan than that. However, they are also generally speaking to bigger businesses.

Evidence-Based Strategy

As we moved forward with a general idea, I began to do some research focusing on EVPs and looking for evidence on outcomes. From among the many articles and books I read, I recommend a great book, Just Good Business, by Kellie A. McElhaney. My research helped me begin to develop a strategy for the EVP component of our CSR program that would fit with Avista’s goals.

Audit and Adjustments

Based on what I learned, I took a hard look at our EVP’s motivators. The two main goals of our leadership were: 1) to engage our employees and build our team, and 2) to have a positive impact in the world.

Our employees were engaged and connecting with each other, but we are a relatively small organization, especially in comparison to national and international nonprofits like Ronald McDonald House, the Red Cross, the MS Society, and Be the Match. While they are all wonderful organizations doing important work, our impact was necessarily small. We just do not have enough employees to make our volunteer hours amount to much in an organization that size.

I also went back to our team. I talked with our people more broadly about the issues and demographics they cared about and to which they were already committed. The feedback I received varied from those who were passionate about specific causes, to those who just wanted to hang out with other team members.

Leaning on my 13 years of working and volunteering in Saint Paul, Minnesota, I met with former colleagues and volunteers. I made a list of organizations that had a staff size similar to ours, addressed some of the issues named by members of our team, and had needs I thought we could fill. I contacted the volunteer coordinators at each of the organizations and arranged to meet with them. Those meetings were invaluable. They shared what their organization and the people they serve needed, and I shared what we at Avista could offer. I also kept in mind our core values and the work we do. If we were a good fit, we put a date on the calendar.

The Message

Throughout that building process, I was aware we needed ways to communicate about our CSR program with our clients and partners. Avista was developing this program not because of a PR problem or compliance issue, but because our leadership valued it. We excel at the work of our work – serving our clients exceptionally – and it is always the top priority. However, our growing EVP was also a differentiator.

How did we start to get that message out?
I’ll be writing about that and more in my next article.