How To Build A Business Case For Social Good

Making the case for social good. Photo Credit: GettyGetty

In my 20+ years of experience working across Diversity Inclusion functions, and more recently, building out Environmental, Social and Governance functions at Fortune 500 companies, I have led many conversations with top executives about why investing in these initiatives is smart business. One of the things that I’ve learned is that while we know that both DI and social good have a positive impact on society, proving the business value to your organization is what will ultimately bring it from a boardroom discussion to a company-wide rollout. If you’re interested in starting a DI or social good function but aren’t sure where to start, figuring out the why and how, from a business perspective, is the absolute best place to start.

Within any business, the number one question asked when an idea for a new initiative is introduced is: what’s the impact this will have on our bottom line? Business leaders want to know that any initiative which is going to take up time and resources, both of which can often be scarce, is one worth investing in from an ROI perspective. Therefore, it is critical to understand that if you want to launch an initiative within your company, you must first establish and present a strong business case for it. The main purposes of building a business case for developing DI and social good initiatives are to A) convince your CEO, CFO and other key leadership that these initiatives are worthwhile from a dollars and cents perspective and B) begin to establish how you will discuss these topics with your employees, clients and the public once they’ve been rolled out. So where do you start?

The first thing I recommend is that you do your research, both externally and internally. Externally, read up on what other companies are doing in these spaces. What are some innovative initiatives out there that you’re seeing? What are some of the ways that these programs are structured? Are there specific teams dedicated to them? If you’re already working in the DI and social good spaces but don’t have a formal division yet, reach out to colleagues in your industry and pick their brains. Look at case studies – get your hands on as many as you can, educate yourself and become an expert on the topic. Understanding the marketplace is crucial, and directly tying the results of social impact to the business (perhaps via successes that other companies have had, if your company is totally new to the space), is key.

In my experience working in financial services, I have found that the greatest skeptics of these initiatives often come in the form of the sales and finance teams. These teams are all about quantitative data, and they want to see that social impact moves the needle. This is where your case studies and external data come in, and where the data you collect once the initiative begins to roll out will come in, too. It takes time to collect this data and prove it at a company level, so at the beginning you will really want to lean on external data and make sure that internally, you are tracking the right metrics in the right way. Additionally, I often heard from traders that discussing these topics with clients was a bit uncomfortable at first, because it was very much outside of their usual conversations. Providing them with hard numbers and statistics made them feel much more comfortable talking about the potential impact of these initiatives and investments on the bottom line.

Internally, get the pulse of your organization. Look at each and every department within your organization and find the areas where social impact might be lacking. Then, identify the direct causal effect that introducing social impact initiatives into these departments can potentially have there. For example, In recent years we’ve seen tech companies begin to realize that there isn’t enough support for their female employees internally, and many have begun to course correct. This is not only good for employee retention, but it’s also good for the optics of the company when it comes to public-facing reputation and attracting new talent. Connect with your colleagues internally and get their thoughts on what they think might be missing in the areas of DI, and what social initiatives they’re passionate about. If possible, conduct focus groups or send out company-wide surveys to gain insight. This can elucidate the internals needs of your company, and begin to inspire a movement internally. It may also lead your fellow employees to raise their hands to participate in building this out – which will help you significantly get ahead in the team-building step that’s to come later on.

Once you’ve conducted your research, begin preparing collateral that you will present to leadership. This can include a general strategy for what the initiative will look like and how it will roll out (in terms of timeline, departments, regions, etc). When developing your strategy for integrating social impact into your business, make sure that that strategy closely aligns with what your company actually does day to day. For example, when I lead Corporate Social Responsibility for Thomson Reuters, we tapped into our data expertise and resources to create the Diversity Inclusion Index.  Next, create goals for 3 months, 6 months, a year, etc, as well as tools for checking in on progress along the way. It’s a good idea to start small, test and learn, and grow from there. You’ll also want to present a suggested org chart so that your company leadership can understand who the key players will be and what their specific roles will entail. Will your company require more staff, or are there existing staff who could move into this role, or add areas of it to their purview? Finally, get an idea of what budget and resources might be necessary in order to achieve these goals. If additional staff will be necessary, what will that cost? What will conducting quarterly surveys cost? What will it cost to prepare both the internal and external-facing communication and marketing materials around these initiatives? Again, the idea here is to speak to the dollars and cents of the organization.

Once you’ve pulled together all the research and presentation materials, set up time to speak with leadership one-on-one to garner initial feedback, and take their suggestions and adjust your strategy. This will help you get the pulse of leadership and strengthen your argument before taking it in front of the C-suite at large. When you do get to the board room and present to the key decision makers, be sure to show both your passion and your expertise in the topic, and keep an open mind. And if you don’t get the complete buy-in that you wanted, don’t be discouraged. While leadership in some companies may still see DI and social good as “soft issues” at the moment, the data supporting the business case behind them is mounting. Find one element of your strategy or one department that you can get leadership behind you on, and go from there. The positive results that you’ll see within your own organization and the data you’ll collect along the way will be very helpful in revisiting the conversation down the line.

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