Millennials are the most populous generation in United States history, with more than 90 million living in America today. Knowing this, companies are investing in winning over this generation. Research shows that millennials are concerned with corporate ethics, and companies are listening— in 2015 alone, 81 percent of Fortune 500 companies published sustainability reports.
While it’s great news that so many companies are focused on corporate social responsibility (CSR), it’s just as important to ensure corporations make evidence-based decisions to determine how to best serve their communities. For example, many companies currently require a “global day of service” for all employees. This approach is not effective. Not only does it disrupt the work day, it’s likely not providing the charity, non-profit or community-based organization the kind of services it really needs. A better model for engagement would be a company adopting a community-based organization and using a skills-based and capacity-focused approach. Imagine if their corporate employees could choose from a menu of support that highlighted which community-based organizations had the greatest needs and employees could sign-up based upon their expertise.
To ensure that companies make the best use of their CSR resources, Get IN Chicago recently made five key recommendations for violence prevention initiatives at community-based organizations. These learnings were designed through two years of research and data collection, to be used to combat violence and the systemic issues that lead to it. That said, what we learned can provide valuable insight to any company, large or small, currently executing or considering a CSR strategy.
1. Confirm the program actually addresses the needs of the group or risk population you want to serve.
A CSR initiative’s success ultimately depends on the research and planning behind their charitable choice. At Get IN Chicago, our goal was to impact youth violence, but through research, we found that few violence reduction programs were serving acutely high-risk youth. For example, there are many different reasons someone may be at-risk. There’s risk of teen pregnancy or high school dropout. To impact violence, our organizations need to be engaging the acutely high-risk youth: those who are at the greatest risk for gun violence. Thus, our first step to impact was making sure our partners were working consistently with this population.
Distinguishing the group you intend to impact is essential when determining which partner programs are the best investment for your company. If a partner doesn’t directly benefit the cause or population that you’re looking to address, then you should re-examine your support. They may not be a fit, but more likely, they may need support in designing their screening process or engaging a vulnerable population.
2. Ensure the organizations you support have the capacity and capabilities to work with the people you’re trying to serve and collect quality data related to those services.
When your company finds a charitable partner aligned with your chosen cause, ensure that the partner is equipped with appropriate resources. Get IN Chicago found that certain skills, expertise and operational upgrades were crucial for community-based organizations to be effective. Resources are limited; for sustainable programming, funding is often not only needed for services, but capacity building.
Companies can help organizations on the front lines with technical assistance to develop staff training, strategic planning, and financial management. In particular, strengthening program infrastructure can have a dramatic effect on program outcomes. Collaborations between community-based organizations and companies can also help build up the community overall by encouraging work to continue beyond the life of a particular grant.
3. Review if the program is delivering the correct dosage of intervention.
We know that some companies use their CSR resources toward evidence-based programs. However, in practice, are these programs delivering the interventions as intended? Similar to medication, much evidence-based programming is only effective when delivered at the appropriate dosage, which varies by program and the participants’ risk level.
When a program is not implemented at the correct dosage, its chances of impact decrease. For example, many effective mentoring models require at least two 1-hour sessions per week. Even if organizations include effective mentoring models in their plans, their program might not be impactful if sessions only happen once per month. Maintaining a clear understanding of the dosage of interventions is key when implementing and evaluating the effectiveness of an evidence-based initiative.
4. Track programs from the start to improve outcomes and share success.
Return on investment is crucial for the sustainability and continued impact of all CSR initiatives. We know that being able to determine the outcomes of a program is important to violence prevention work, but it’s equally important to any community-based program addressing social issues.
Programs should be designed to have measurable outcomes and tangible results. Incorporating evaluation into programs can help to strengthen what works and identify areas for improvement, but in order to do this, community organizations need to have appropriate systems for collecting and sharing data to document their efforts and monitor their impact. Companies and funders can support community organizations to evaluate success, improve their programs, and direct funding to what works.
5. Empower communities to serve their local youth.
Communities that feel empowered become safer and are more successful at reducing violence, a strategy that Get IN Chicago has embedded into its work. But the underlying message here is universal: the more community members are inspired by and involved with a CSR initiative, the more effective the program will be.
For a community-based organization to meet their goals, success depends upon a community of engaged and empowered people. Fostering community collaboration and resident empowerment programs is a vital element to consider when measuring the success of your company’s CSR program.
As corporations continue to give back more and more every year, it’s important to make sure they’re doing it in the right way. These five recommendations are starting points for corporations, big and small, who are looking to make a difference in communities. Before you donate a large sum of money, talk to the communities and organizations you want to serve. Discover what they truly need and help them introduce evaluation to improve effectiveness and measurement to determine impact. Ask these questions and in addition to the dollar amount increasing, the amount of positive impact will also.
—Dr. Toni Irving, public policy expert and executive director of Get IN Chicago.