The majority of consumers believe businesses are responsible for having a greater social purpose beyond profit. According to a recent study by Cone, 65% of respondents concur that businesses have a shared responsibility to address and solve today’s social and environmental issues through a blending of social initiatives and business operations.

Respondents who believed businesses should actively share in social responsibility were categorized by Cone accordingly:

Emotionalists (22%): “Businesses should support larger social or environmental issues by donating products, money or volunteering.”

Advocates (20%): “Businesses should not only support but advocate for change in larger social or environmental issues by increasing awareness of the issue and donating products or services, money or volunteering.”

Activists (23%): “Businesses should change the way they operated to align with greater social and environmental needs.”

The study also indentified those who were less receptive or even opposed to shared responsibility:

Pacifists (24%): “Businesses may play a limited role in the community in which they are based, but are not necessarily responsible for supporting social or environmental issues.”

Disbelievers (11%): “Businesses exist to make money for shareholders and are not responsible for supporting social or environmental issues.” (See “Does corporate social responsibility lead to higher profits – or vice versa?”)

The study found that consumers expect companies to be accountable for participating in a large range of issues, including:

  • Ensuring product safety and quality (92%)
  • Ensuring worker health and safety (92%)
  • Ensuring proper product disposal/recycling (89%)
  • Ensuring human rights (87%)
  • Reducing energy and emissions to combat climate change (84%)
  • Preserving natural resources (84%)
  • Ensuring availability and access to safe water (83%)
  • Promoting diversity (81%)
  • Protecting threatened and endangered species (75%)
  • Minimizing disease (72%)
  • Improving nutrition and combating obesity (69%)
  • Alleviating poverty (62%)

So what are the expectations of small businesses when it comes to shared responsibility? Many of the issues shown above – such as access to safe water, minimizing disease, alleviating poverty – are viewed as global concerns and therefore seem to be more reasonable “assignments” for larger or multinational corporations. But does that mean smaller companies are “off the hook”?

It makes sense that the way a business shares responsibility should reflect the company’s size, vision, mission and reach. While a large company, such as General Mills, can have considerable impact on a broad scale (it donated $90.7 million in 2009 toward programs that alleviate hunger, improve nutrition, and support education, social services, arts and culture), a small company can proportionately have the same kind of impact on its neighborhood.

Draw from your immediate market to see the needs and address the problems. For example, do you own a small, local restaurant that attracts a large number of elderly people for the “early bird specials”? Chances are, there are also many older citizens in your community who are isolated and alone. Engage your customers and employees to support and volunteer at neighborhood outreach programs serving the elderly. Or, if you own a sporting goods store, consider “adopting” a school football team in a nearby low-income area and donate uniforms and equipment.

Consumers want to share the responsibility, too, and be involved in the solutions. In fact, the Cone study found that, if a company incorporated their ideas, consumers say they would be more likely to buy its products and services (60%), more loyal (54%) and more likely to recommend the company (51%). Engage your customers in your efforts by mentioning cause partnerships in ads, inviting followers through Facebook and Twitter, developing in-store signage, including information in your e-newsletter and sponsoring events.

– LuAnne Speeter