Upstanding citizens: the delicate balance of corporate citizenship strategies

How does your business contribute to the world?

Sure, it offers a product or service, but what does it do – beyond its economic reason for being – that makes an impact on society?

It’s an important question to ask. Corporate citizenship is an important strand of any organisation. But the considerations behind it and how the strategy is executed are equally crucial. Not every brand gets it right.

Corporate citizenship must support a brand in a meaningful way. It is a strand that runs through your company that’s almost unspoken. It's something you do and are seen to do, but that you don't publicise – it doesn't form part of your mainstream communications. It is a gentle experience. People see it and say: "Well of course they are doing that, it makes perfect sense". People find out about it in an innocent way.

Take Microsoft. The firm is ranked number one in the world by Corporate Responsibility Magazine for its corporate citizenship activities. The juggernaut has its own strategy based around three pillars: human rights, environmental sustainability and transparency. It quietly goes about its business supporting these strands, while the majority of outside attention is focused on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, created and run, of course, by Microsoft’s founding father.

IBM is another organisation that takes a no-fuss approach to corporate citizenship. And it keeps its operations separate from its core company. IBM’s citizenship team embarks on programmes that are rooted in the challenges the planet faces. It started by making cities smarter with the Smarter Cities Challenge and aiding scientific research with World Community Grid. Now it has moved onto two of the biggest challenges in the world, health and education, driven by its cognitive technology, Watson. Programmes directly address these issues in different parts of the world. It’s little wonder the firm is ranked third in the world for philanthropy.

But not all brands have nailed this “softly, softly” approach. In London this month, I spotted Citibank advertising its corporate citizenship play, Citi for Cities. The strategy sees Citi partnering with governments and businesses to provide finance and expertise to solve problems they are facing. A notable project is Citi’s partnership with with the Public Lighting Authority to turn the streetlights back on in Detroit. It’s a great scheme that saw Citi essentially front more than $200 million – and it provided a huge benefit to Detroit. But I don't think Citi needs to publicise it with an ad campaign. There's a much softer story that it could tell. If you ram something down your audience's throat, don't expect to be thanked. Corporate responsibility should be in your DNA and part of who you are.

Bloomberg is another example of how corporate citizenship should be done. Founder and former Mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg, takes the Bill Gates approach with a separate charitable foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies. Focusing on public health, the arts, government innovation, the environment and education, it has nothing to do with Bloomberg LLP. There is a connection through his name, of course, but the foundation is carrying out its business quietly. This year alone, Bloomberg Philanthropies donated $100 million to help fund the construction of Cornell University’s new high-tech campus in New York City.

What I call corporate citizenship started out as corporate social responsibility (CSR). It was assumed that every company needed a CSR programme and it started out as an add-on, like an extension of HR. Now it's citizenship. All brands, big or small, need to embrace it. You don't need a big programme; even if it’s your company raising some money for charity here and there, little things help and build to become an experience.

Brands need to realise that to make a mark on the world they have to leave it in a better place, not just go on the journey. Those brands that get it right will have a long legacy and set an example for others.

Drew has left The Frameworks.


  • Comment/Opinion