Human Resources and Sustainability

Companies using CSR to build communities

Social responsibility movement is gaining traction in West Michigan.

October 20, 2012
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The past decade has seen the topic of corporate social responsibility move from the sidelines to the forefront of business conversations. Many companies have even added full-time positions to their jobs rosters that focus primarily on building social responsibility programs. Companies are also increasingly offering up annual CSR reports to add accountability and transparency to their efforts.

Corporate social responsibility conversations began with an almost equal focus on environmental stewardship and fair labor practices, particularly abroad. Today, those topics continue to be the center of most CSR programs, but some companies are starting to broaden their efforts to improve their community through additional types of “social” programs.

Earlier this month, members of the West Michigan business community gathered at Amway’s headquarters for the first of what many attendees hope will become an annual conference on CSR trends and strategies.

The attendees took part in a full day of discussion on best practices and innovative ideas in the realm of CSR programs.

“West Michigan is a little ahead of the curve in social capital,” said Michael DeWilde, director of the Business Ethics Center at the Seidman College of Business and an associate professor of philosophy at Grand Valley State University.

DeWilde said that while environmental sustainability and labor practices continue to be the main focus for companies in the region, some are starting to expand into the philanthropic realm, and not just with monetary donations.

DeWilde believes the large number of privately held companies in West Michigan is one reason that the area has seen substantial efforts and success with CSR programs; these companies can take more chances. He also said the personal values of business owners play a substantial role, calling their efforts “applied religion.”

He pointed to the long list of companies and organizations that are part of The Source, a not-for-profit employee support organization that helps improve the local work force through training efforts. Workers hired through this program receive hard- and soft-skill training, as well as financial literacy education, giving them the opportunity to move up — even moving from one participating company to another.

Another pioneering CSR collaborative effort between businesses, nonprofits and neighborhood residents is Seeds of Promise, a place-based, community led effort targeting the Dickenson Elementary School neighborhood. Its four main focus areas are education, employment, economic development and environment.

Grand Rapids Plastics is one of the endorsing partner organizations and currently employs members of the neighborhood through the Seeds of Promise program, ensuring that they bring an annualized income to the neighborhood.

Norman Christopher, executive director of the Sustainable Community Development Initiative at GVSU, said the program is able to generate significant jobs for the community and makes a substantial impact at the same time.

“If you take somebody off of welfare or off of unemployment and they are trained to do a job that generates economic impact back into the community, I think that is a metric now that people are looking at,” Christopher said. “There are several studies in Grand Rapids that talk about business leakage, where individuals within the inner city of Grand Rapids actually travel elsewhere to get some of the products and services they need. I think local economic impact is a metric that people will be tracking more.”

In addition to providing training and jobs for members of their community, companies also are finding that helping communities solve social issues such as hunger, illiteracy and health-care access can have a big impact on the community within which they operate.

Jonathan Kumar is working with several small and mid-sized companies in the area to combat hunger through his company, Food Circles.

“Companies spend a lot of time and resources trying to reduce their energy consumption or their waste production,” Kumar said. “We are trying to take a look at it and, under that same philosophy, repurpose company dining. We think company dining is a big source of economic growth for restaurants in the area and that we can repurpose that dining to feed children in our community.”

Food Circles has been working on the program with a slew of pilot companies and local restaurants, as well as Kids’ Food Basket.

“What we do is build relationships with restaurants and create these incentives to bring co-workers in, and then every time a group of co-workers goes to one of our partner restaurants through our website, our web app, Food Circles donates to Kids’ Food Basket the cost of one meal.”

Companies do not need to be large to have an impact on their community. Simply allowing employees to volunteer with a local organization is a great entry point for starting a CSR program.

“I don’t think it has to be large. I think the idea is to start the journey,” Christopher said.

Christopher said that civic engagement is the next level companies will reach for in CSR programs, and that more and more companies will be adding these efforts to their annual CSR reports. These efforts show a company’s commitment to keeping wealth and resources close to home and show a willingness to invest in the community.

“As a citizen you know that you have a responsibility to help solve quality-of-life issues in the community with others, and that was a very interesting topic,” Christopher added.

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