It’s becoming more common for small business owners to incorporate a cause — a philanthropy, social movement, or similar — into their business. While some owners may be hesitant to get involved in a cause, it’s important to note that some consumers actively seek this type of involvement. We put together a guide to help you decide whether incorporating a cause makes sense, as well as how to do it strategically.
The case for a cause
In many ways, 2020 may have been a pivotal year for social causes. Social distancing meant people spent more time engaging with media — and what they saw was a series of protests and an election year filled with impassioned debate.
That may play out in how people shop in coming years. For instance, roughly three in four shoppers told the National Retail Federation that how companies responded to civil rights protests would affect whether they continued to shop there.
That can feel like a lot to wade into. However, not supporting a cause with your business can send a message, too. In a recent survey 70 percent of consumers said it’s important for brands to take a public stance on social causes, which may extend to their thinking about small businesses.
So how can you decide if you should support a cause and, if so, which one?
Start with your customers
The causes that are important to consumers often evolve over time. For instance, in the 1970s it was saving whales, in the 1980s it was beating AIDS, in the 1990s it was ending child labor, and so on.
In the 2020s, poverty, climate change, and civil rights are some of the most popular issues.
Knowing which issues are timely and important to your audience can help you start thinking about potential causes.
For instance, if you run a coffee shop near a college campus, it may be helpful for you to know that nearly 90 percent of Gen Z supports Black Lives Matter, according to a poll by Business Insider.
On the other hand, if you run a coffee shop in a neighborhood of mostly millennials, it’s helpful to know they’ve long preferred businesses that support philanthropy in general, so which cause you support may matter less than a philanthropic mindset.
Action tip: If you’re not sure which causes your customers support, start by being as observant as possible: If you own an auto repair shop, what kind of bumper stickers are you seeing on cars?
How about your personal opinion?
Even if your customers support one specific cause, that isn’t reason enough for your business to support it (financially or otherwise). If it’s not something you believe in, too, this can be seen as pandering.
However, knowing where your customers stand can ensure you’re respectful, which is critical. More than half of consumers told Sprout Social they would stop shopping with a business that supported causes they didn’t agree with. If you personally support different causes than your customers, make a note of it. Understanding your customers viewpoints helps ensure you’re respectful in how you address important topics.
Action tip: Avoid endorsing causes that you know your customers disagree with and instead, look for common ground and causes you both support.
Look for neutral causes and common ground
There are a number of causes that are still viewed as apolitical: helping the homeless, supporting animal rescue, and donating to food banks, to name a few.
Supporting such “neutral” causes shows you care and can help you build more meaningful relationships with your customers, employees, and community.
Outreach like this can also help you keep customers if they discover you disagree in other areas.
Action tip: Tell your customers you’re planning to donate to a charity and let them choose which one. Offer three choices to ensure it’s a cause you also support. This approach lets you learn more about your customers, too.
Look beyond monetary donations
Supporting a cause is about more than donating money. You can also incorporate the principles of a cause into how you do business. For instance, if you’re interested in helping the environment, you might switch to electronic hand dryers in your restrooms to reduce paper waste.
Action tip: Consider a sign explaining what updates you’re making and why. It can help avoid confusion while also showing your support for your chosen cause.
Aligning your business with a cause can also affect your company culture. It shows your employees and partners what you value. This can help you attract new employees and partners who share your values as you grow.
Plus, having a cause can affect how you interact with your community. After all, one of the most popular ways to support initiatives, aside from money, is with time. Consider volunteering with local programs. If you’re an accounting firm, you might offer to help the local food bank with its tax returns.
Action tip: If you’re volunteering in a public place, wear a T-shirt with your logo on it. There’s no harm in marketing your business as you give back.
Many business owners want to make a difference in the world; it may even be why you started your company. Supporting a cause can be a natural extension of this thinking. And if you do it right, helping others can help your business in turn.