When we think of corporate social responsibility, often the first thing that comes to mind is large corporations and their massive sponsorship and charity donation programs. But that’s not the only way CSR can work. Small and medium businesses don’t necessarily have deep pockets, but we’re often scrappy, creative, and already thinking outside the box. Also, we’re genuine when we do CSR; we simply don’t have the resources to waste on pure PR. It has to mean something to us to be worthwhile. Not only that, but our conviction that we have something different to offer the business world often extends to the world in general: we believe we can change things, and we’re willing to prove it.
How does that approach translate into CSR? As the founder of two small businesses, I have lots of thoughts on the topic. But instead of just sharing my own approach, I decided to reach out to others. One of my companies is B2BeeMatch.com, a business matchmaking platform for small and medium businesses. A perfect source of info! So I sent an email blast out to B2BeeMatch members to get their take on CSR… and they did not disappoint.
From their responses, I learned that small business CSR falls into several categories. Let’s take a look.
Small businesses do a lot of pro bono and discounted work.
Keri Jaehnig runs Idea Girl Media, a boutique social media and content marketing agency in Wilmington, Ohio. She says although her agency doesn’t have a formal CSR policy, “since I started the business, we have always prioritized giving back and sending the elevator back down.” Among other things, Idea Girl has offered complimentary services that pair with paid services as part of a package during economic recessions.
Similarly, Brian Crew, whose company Bric Consulting serves small businesses in southern Ontario, says, “I’m always willing to make special accommodations for clients who require it. Bootstrapped startups or companies struggling are accommodated in ways that work for them, as these are often the clients who need me the most.”
Another great example is MarketBox, a firm that provides online sales automation software for mobile and virtual service businesses. CEO Diana Goodwin says, “We want to help jumpstart the economy and we believe that starts with helping entrepreneurs launch more businesses. We’ve been offering extended software trials and discounts. We’re proud that we’ve been able to help launch businesses founded by Black, Indigenous and female entrepreneurs including mobile beauty services, in-home chefs and virtual tutoring businesses.”
These are just three examples—literally every single respondent told me they do pro bono and discount work of some kind. We entrepreneurs want people in need to have access to the great work we offer!
That also translates into another type of CSR that’s tightly connected to our work…
Small businesses provide tons of mentorship in our fields.
“As a woman, I help those who are just thinking or wishing to start a business. That you could be in the grocery store or at a networking meeting. I’m paying it forward as a thanks to those who believed in me when I was starting out,” says Ann Marie van den Hurk of Mind the Gap PR, based in Newport, Rhode Island, which serves clients all over the globe.
MELLOHAWK Logistics Inc. owners Peter Hawkins and Arnon Melo also provide mentorship, particularly in the aim of helping newcomers to Canada navigate the job market—and they hire lots of their mentees. Their efforts stem from their core beliefs: “We support the Black Lives Matter movement as we learn about our own privilege and implicit bias. We support greater immigration and freedom of migration. We support protection of LGBTQ2 rights.” (We just published a profile of Peter Hawkins on the B2BeeMatch blog—check it out!)
These business leaders aren’t the only ones. Many respondents said they lend a hand to younger folks in their fields. It seems to come with the territory of running a small business—not only do we know our respective fields and niches, but we also know how to run a company. It’s a double whammy of expertise.
We also give in-kind donations.
Here’s a stellar story. Bhairavi Shankar, PhD, is the brains behind Indus Space, a social enterprise based just outside Toronto that brings space science and exploration to youth in the K-12 age range. They offer workshops, after-school programming, day camps, and space-themed products. She explains, “We have partnered with local community groups that focus their STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programming to reach low-income and marginalized communities.” Recently, Indus Space created a physical shoebox kit called “Astronomy in a Shoebox” to help low-income families weather out the COVID pandemic even if they don’t have easy access to online content.
Gary Lee of Thirty Three Percent, a UK-based marketing firm that specializes in working with small business owners, provides in-kind donations in the form of teaching. “We decided from the start that we’d give a certain number of workshops or courses to struggling businesses for free, as part of giving a little back,” he says. When a second COVID-19 lockdown arrived, the firm decided to offer free marketing workshops to any small and local business that was facing difficulties.
Here’s an example with a twist: Jayesh Patel runs Progressive, a UK management consultancy firm based in the Greater Manchester Area that specializes in working with high-growth SMEs. “I was lucky enough to win £3,000 worth of advertising from an initiative run by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Metro and i newspapers,” he says. “I used the national advertising to offer SMEs throughout the UK £2,000 worth of free consultancy advice during the pandemic.” Talk about a win-win situation!
Sometimes, though, our CSR is not directly related to our area of business…
Small businesses also engage in advocacy work and charity efforts well outside our fields.
Cledson Guerra is the CEO of Wedo Trade Solutions in Brazil, which offers import-export logistics solutions for international trade companies. He explains that he and others on his team were already part of Cura Brasil, which supports American volunteer doctors who come to help with medical care for the neediest populations in the city of Itu. “After we decided to open a company in our country,” he says, “we chose to allocate part of the profits to this campaign. We also act as volunteers during the week of action every year in July.”
Another businessperson with a far-reaching CSR ethic is speaker and business developer Louis Barnett, who until 2015 ran Chokolit, a chocolate manufacturing business, based in Staffordshire, UK. “For me,” he says, “CSR falls into two distinct categories: people who genuinely care, and people who want to appear to care. I have always felt a heartfelt obligation to help and protect the world I live in. For me, it is not a question of should I, but more, how could I not?”
During his time at the helm of Chokolit, he says the company ensured donations of a minimum of 10% of their profits to NGOs and organizations focused on conservation through both land and species protection.
Barnett praises brands that place sustainability and social responsibility at their core. “Today, 45% of UK shoppers are actively interested in buying products which are much better for our planet,” he says. “The scales need to be rebalanced for us all to take up the challenge of making the world a better place, starting with our own business and expanding outwardly.”
In short, we do a bit of everything.
Many of the business leaders who responded to my query sent me lists of two, three or more types of CSR efforts they engage in—so many that I couldn’t include them all here, including stories of generosity that defy categorization.
As you can see, as SMEs, our CSR efforts are incredibly diverse—just like we are.