Corporate Social Responsibility

New York Law Journal, June 2007

Corporate Social Responsibility: More Than Table Sponsorships and Journal Ads

by Vikki Grodner

Does your firm approach being a good corporate citizen through random acts of journal ads, table purchases and little league sponsorships? Is there a sense that making such contributions is just the cost of doing business and an inevitable loss leader on the firm’s bottom line? Or that charitable giving is a “catch-as-catch-can” proposition where you approve requests because they are being made by a rainmaker, not because they have any basis in solid strategy?

If so, you are not alone. But increasingly, professional services firms are putting meaningful thought – and business strategy – behind their charitable giving to create programs that are far-reaching in scope and significance. Regardless of size, for firms that organize such programs – known most commonly as community relations or corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs — in a systematized and deliberate manner, they can be some of the most effective marketing, branding and business development tools available.

Pro Bono As Part of the CSR Mix

For years, law firms have understood the value of pro bono work. Pro bono provides visibility for the firm in the legal and business communities. It creates the opportunity for attorneys to handle matters that they might not have the time or resources to participate in during their normal workday. In certain circumstances, pro bono efforts can result in changing cultural perceptions, legislation or individual lives.

But there are numerous shortcomings if a firm thinks pro bono is the only useful community relations initiative. First, it excludes many firm stakeholders who are not attorneys: administrative management, secretarial and some paralegal support and office services staff. While it is easy to be dismissive of the impact of this issue, each of these staff members is an important messenger for your organization. Firms that spend time and effort on pricey and time-consuming branding initiatives and robust pro bono programs, but neglect building a cohesive firm-wide team to address community relations efforts run the risk of undoing much of the good resulting from the aforementioned efforts. Inclusive strategic community relations programs can eliminate this concern and, taken even further, can help to build the intended brand by creating a staff of “raving fans.”

Benefits of A Strong Community Relations Program

Beyond building morale and serving as an internal marketing tool, other advantages of building a strong community relations or corporate social responsibility program include:

  • developing a system of charitable giving and involvement that prioritizes firm involvements to meet objectives in support of business and marketing plans. Creating such a system also can provide a much more efficient model for giving resources, resulting in an investment of fewer resources for decision-making as a result of clear guidelines.
  • increasing involvement in targeted industries of interest to the firm. At New York firm Phillips Nizer, attorneys and staff have been active in such organizations as Dress for Success, DIFFA (Design Industry Foundation Fighting Aids), and AAFA (American Apparel and Footwear Association) over the years. These are good strategic choices for the firm due to their extensive representation of fashion industry clients. Supporting organizations like these provides Phillips Nizer with the opportunity to have visibility as a thought leader, a sponsor or as participants at events.
  • networking with important business contacts by serving in leadership roles on committees or boards of organizations or by attending appropriate events.
  • supporting or developing targeted community projects that match the goals and objectives of clients or prospective clients of the firm. While this makes such projects more meaningful, it also provides a measurable matrix by which to analyze such involvements on an annual basis.

Steps to a Comprehensive Strategic Community Relations Program

By creating a more comprehensive program, firms become actively involved in the community while assisting in the firm’s branding and business development efforts. So how exactly do you create a CSR program that is meaningful, measurable, targeted and inclusive?

  • Start by looking at business and marketing plans, branding, and goals of the firm. Whether you have are a full-service or boutique practice, if you have done any sort of business planning, it should provide strong indicators as to the direction your CSR program should take.
  • Perform a community relations audit of all attorneys and staff. Find out what 1) people are currently involved in; 2) what they would like to be involved in; and 3) what their clients or prospective clients are involved in. Capture this information in a database to analyze where your current strengths lie as well as to determine if there are opportunities for community involvement that have been overlooked.How will you know this? Research the communities and industries in which you are located. Analyze previous, worthwhile requests that have provided opportunities to donate not just financially, but also with time, leadership and other non-monetary contributions.
  • Establish a committee and schedule for considering requests. Nothing can tame the unwieldy beast of charitable giving quicker than developing a procedure for appropriate management of the process. Consider creating a three to five-member committee (members should be a combination of partners, associates and a representative from the marketing department) to evaluate such requests on a bi-monthly or quarterly basis. Maybe an annual disbursement works better for your organization, with a small percentage of the budget set aside for unexpected, worthwhile opportunities that come up during the course of the year. The same process can be used to evaluate requests for organizational support of non-financial requests at the institutional level as well.

The advantage of this approach is that it invites discipline to the procedure, banning once and for all haphazard giving that bloats budgets and wastes inordinate amounts of time with tug-of-war discussions about the value of competing appeals.

  • Identify charitable endeavors that have meaning to your clients and prospective clients. Once you have done your analysis, and established a procedure, the next step is to bring this closer home and make it more relatable to your business. This is where the process starts to become measurable.Identify a manageable number of involvements that are important to your current clients or those you have targeted. This information is often easy to find with a quick search of the internet, if you don’t already know it. Develop an action plan on what you want to accomplish in your relationship with the client as well as the charity over the course of the year, with parallel tracks and measurable checkpoints along the way.

    Such items might be: number of employees to be involved with organization in one year’s time; amount of involvement at board or committee level; number of “events” during the course of the year where you expect to interface directly with client/target through the charitable organization.

    To be clear, you cannot and should not tie new business – whether from an existing or prospective client – directly to a charitable endeavor. This is merely another tool for attorneys to use in building relationships at a higher level and creating additional points of contact. But ultimately, if attorneys are not trained to listen for new business opportunities and to ask for work, it won’t matter how much relevance the charitable efforts have to your core business.

    Also, it clearly has be a charitable effort that the firm feels comfortable endorsing wholeheartedly and about which your staff can be passionate.

  • Find initiatives where the entire staff can be involved, from board or committee representation to large scale events. If a client is passionate about Habitat for Humanity, perhaps you can share the sponsorship of a house project. What better way to develop or expand relationships at all levels of the organization where people are working side-by-side for weeks at a time?
  • Find new efforts where you can make a significant impact, have high visibility within the organization or “own” it. Is there a new effort in the community that is looking for leadership? If you are the first firm to be involved, often you can blanket the charity with meaningful manpower while securing your firm’s prominence during its early stages.
  • Seek meaningful, unique and topical charitable opportunities that have a story to tell. The firm will be more likely to obtain publicity for its efforts.

At one of my previous firms, we got involved with a national organization – Gilda’s Club — that was establishing a local presence. The group, which provides support for those living with cancer, had a wonderful story to tell and provided the firm with an unusual amount of visibility because of our early support.

In another instance, a firm sponsored a fundraising ocean swim – at the time the only athletic event of its kind on the East Coast – in memory of a partner who had a passion for the sport. Due to the uniqueness of the event and the fact that it was for a good cause – youth swimming programs — there was much interest from both local and regional media.