Start-Ups

How to build a socially responsible startup from day one

For businesses, especially startups, it's important to give back. Here's how you can integrate social responsibility into your company from the ground up.

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Image: iStockphoto/monkeybusinessimages

As a startup founder, you're not going to get very far with your company if you aren't passionate, focused, and dedicated. And, part of that should include dedicating time and energy to social responsibility and the good of your community.

Social responsibility is about more than just doing good. It can help your business as well. According to a 2013 Nielsen survey, 50% of global consumers surveyed said they would pay more for products or services from companies with social responsibility programs in place.

It also might help you attract better talent. In a study conducted in 2000 by Strandberg Consulting, 77% said "a company's commitment to social issues is important when I decide where to work."

Lou Reda is the executive director of HandsOn Bay Area and creator of theVentureOut program that connects founders to volunteer opportunities in their communities. Reda said that, with the recent growth of startups, it's now even more critical for founders to do good works in their cities.

"In some cases, this startup explosion is causing conflicts as neighborhoods are gentrified," Reda said. "In the face of such conflict, it's even more important for startups to prioritize social responsibility and work to make a positive impact on the communities they're working in.

Startups founders have a unique opportunity to weave social responsibility into the fabric of the company from the very beginning. Start by making it a building block for your company's mission.

Make it a core value

Every company has a mission, and one way to make social responsibility a priority is to make it an integral part of that mission. Define it early and stick to it. Ethan Austin, president and co-founder of GiveForward, said his team waited two years to establish its mission and they wish they had done it sooner.

"Write your values on your walls," Austin said. "Until you put your values on your walls they don't mean anything."

Once this mission has been established, it's paramount that it is clearly communicated both internally and externally. Make sure the same things that are written on your walls are also written in your marketing materials and on your website. This will help keep you accountable.

As a founder, you need to consider how you want your company to be seen by the public. If you really want to put yourself out there as a force for social good, you can establish your company as a benefit corporation .

"A Benefit Corporation is a company formation-type whose operating agreement states a commitment to the planet, people and profits," said Damian Salas, assistant teaching professor at the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship at Drexel University. "It sets the foundation of your company culture and should be considered very early in the company formation."

Once the company and its mission are both set in stone, one of your jobs as a founder is to evangelize the mission. Think about this as a part of your elevator pitch and how you explain the impact of your company.

Brent Chudoba, senior vice president and chief revenue officer of SurveyMonkey, said that it is important to make social responsibility a part of your daily conversations in the work place.

"Talk about it," Chudoba said. "In your all-hands meetings, company updates, with new team members and with customers. Begin every meeting with how much you're giving and how your organization is doing something special. It helps people realize that their work really is making 'a difference - they can see the bigger picture."

Making social responsibility a core value means that it will become part of the hiring process. When hiring, you should look for candidates who share your company's values and goals — both in regard to business as well as ethics.

"You can train someone to fill orders or write code, but you can't train passion," Salas said.

Build it into the business

Think of this as "putting your money where your mouth is." Connecting your social programs with your revenue is a great way to incentivize giving back and making it easier to give back. One way you can do this is by making charitable donations with your profits.

"Consider taking a portion of the company profits to solving a societal problem, and develop programs to execute that vision," Salas said. "For example, United By Blue uses a portion of their profits to remove trash from waterways nationwide including the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers."

Another similar way to build social responsibility into your company is to connect financial giving or product donations to your success. Think of this like the TOMS Shoes approach, where for every pair of shoes they sell, another pair is donated to a child in need.

"In SurveyMonkey's case, 50 cents is donated for every survey completed when customers run a SurveyMonkey Audience project," Chudoba said. "That means the more Audience projects we run, the more donations are raised for our charity partners."

However you implement your social good programs, it is important to remember that donating money is just as important as donating time, skills, or other resources.

Involve everyone

For most people, if something isn't on the calendar for work, it's probably not going to get done. The same is true for philanthropy. Chudoba recommends creating a monthly cadence of volunteer events to help employees get involved.

Donating other resources is powerful, but getting your employees physically involved with the community in a consistent manner has the potential to create a snowball effect.

"Many employees want to work for a company that volunteers and invests locally, while more and more companies want to hire employees that hold those same values," Reda said. "When the two come together, the culture will continue to attract like-minded folks, and those like-minded folks will keep the socially responsible culture going."

While all this sounds good in theory, it is difficult for a single person to execute something as time consuming as this. Good leaders delegate, and you should delegate some of the planning and organization for volunteer work to other employees.

Jeremy Roche, president and CEO of FinancialForce.com, instituted FinancialForce4Good as a philanthropic arm for his company to get involved with volunteer opportunities at food banks, blood drives, and Habitat for Humanity. He said that founders should create an official committee to handle volunteer opportunities.

"Part of their responsibilities should be to research, partner with and organize volunteer programs to help get employees on board," Roche said. "Additionally, employees should be able to reach out to these members with questions about upcoming volunteer opportunities or to recommend new programs."

Finally, social responsibility and community involvement shouldn't feel like another part of the work day. Try to make it a fun, social experience where employees can get away from work for a little while.

"Company philanthropy should feel like a privilege, not a chore," Roche said. "Set out early to instill a corporate mindset that volunteering at work is fun and should be a time that employees value, where they can step away from the chaos of their days to get to know people outside of their departments, forge bonds, and help the community they live and work in."

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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