Five ways to get community engagement right

Working with communities is critical to corporates’ sustainability strategy. These ideas will help ensure that everyone involved benefits.

1. Reflect the company’s values

Philips is committed to delivering new healthcare technologies as well as innovative and locally relevant consumer products that make a real difference to customers and stakeholders across the globe. It therefore makes perfect sense for its charitable foundation to have developed a pregnancy toolkit (in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross) aimed at early detection and referral of high-risk pregnancies in fragile communities with limited access to healthcare. The initiative aims to deliver healthcare solutions that are simple, easy-to-use, educative, attuned to cultural norms and independent of electricity or batteries. Crucially, the pregnancy toolkit is not a top-down initiative but leverages the key insights of healthcare professionals on the ground in Africa; the result is a solution that will help to identify pregnancies that pose a risk to mother and baby so they can be referred to a medical centre. 

2. Make a real difference

Some charitable causes, especially focused on children, rightly receive strong corporate support. But there’s a lot to be said for focusing on unglamorous but critical issues such as toilets. The World Toilet Organization points out that sanitation has huge implications for human wellbeing, health and safety. A lack of clean and safe toilets at schools leads to higher dropout among girls once they reach puberty.

Diarrhoeal diseases – a direct consequence of poor sanitation – kill more children every year than AIDS, malaria and measles combined while sexual violence is often focused on communal toilet facilities. Alongside various UN bodies and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, companies such as Google, Hewlett Packard and ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi support World Toilet Organization projects including the World Toilet College, which has encourages best practices and standards in sanitation and has trained more than 4,000 people in China, Indonesia, India and Singapore as well as operating market-based toilet sales models in China, Cambodia and India with local social businesses.

3. Match the brand and purpose

ING’s purpose – empowering people to stay a step ahead in life and in business – is reflected in its Power for Youth partnership with UNICEF. Since 2005, this initiative has sought to give young people the knowledge and skills to become more socially and financially independent, improving both their own future and the futures of those around them.

ING and UNICEF have helped about one million children since we began partnering in 2005. We recently extended this partnership, focusing on empowering adolescents in five countries: Kosovo, Montenegro, the Philippines, Vietnam and China. We teach them 21st-century skills, including critical thinking, collaboration, and leadership.

This helps teenagers identify issues in their community and wider society, set goals, and solve problems with resilience and determination. Power for Youth’s focus on innovation helps adolescents develop into problem-solvers, decision-makers, and critical thinkers in both local and global contexts, contributing to a more skilled workforce.

4. Get employees involved

Harnessing employee support for community or charitable projects is important. It increases employees’ commitment to their company, fosters a sense of team spirit and breaks down silos in organisations. It can also give employees personal fulfilment and a chance to develop new skills. Many companies poll employees on an annual or occasional basis to select suitable projects or charities so that they feel more deeply connected to the company’s community engagement. One way to take this a step further is employee volunteering. When Nestlé built a manufacturing plant in Barangay Bagong in the Philippines, it started a number of community initiatives, including training local people to provide services to the plant. Through Gawad Kalinga, an NGO housing programme for the poor funded by private donors, Nestlé also set up an eco-village where employees volunteer by painting houses, sharing wellness tips and teaching.

5. Focus on the cause, not the publicity benefits

It can be valuable for a company to use its skills and resources for community engagement. But there’s a thin line between optimising the benefits for a project or charity by leveraging a company’ advantages and adopting a cause because it suits the brand. In the social media era, the latter course can rapidly backfire if the public senses cynicism or an attempt to gain advantage by a company: the reputational fallout could be significant. One company that has got the balance right is Whole Foods Market (now owned by Amazon). Its work with the School Food Matters charity reflects its corporate identity of healthy food without overtly pushing the brand. Over six years, almost 42,000 children have taken part in School Food Matters activities such as visiting farms, attending cookery classes and selling their products at Whole Foods Stores to raise money for their schools.

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