Small businesses making a big difference

 In Business Loans & Tips

Times may be tough, but Australia’s small businesses are giving back more than ever to support charitable causes.

When Brisbane business owner Michelle Cassimatis took time out of the pre-Christmas rush to volunteer at a homeless shelter a few years ago it had an unexpected impact. Despite being confronted by the desperate circumstances of others in her community, it actually made her happier – she felt good to be able to help and was more grateful for what she had.

Since then Ms Cassimatis, who runs Michelle’s Skin and Body Solutions, has tried to encourage her staff to do the same each Christmas and leads by example to support local fundraisers throughout the year. “I think what goes around comes around,” she said. “Yes it’s important to pay rent and bills, but it’s also about giving back. I want my staff to know this is what we do.”

Along with generally boosting gratitude, studies have shown volunteering can also reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem.  But experts say giving back is not only good for your staff, it is good for business. In today’s world being good at what you do is not always enough, consumers now want to know your company is also a good corporate citizen.

The term corporate social responsibility, or CSR, was first coined by entrepreneur John Elkington in the 1990s to describe an expectation that companies should behave ethically in the conduct of their business.  It started with a focus on big business, but in the past few years, branding expert Mikayla Maricic, founder of marketing firm Barely Branded, has seen that expectation expand to encompass small and even micro businesses.

Consumers wanted to know where products were made. Were they environmentally friendly? Were suppliers treated well? How did your business give back to the community it profited from?

“In a positive way it’s put a little bit more pressure on business owners to start thinking about not just the bottom line,” Ms Maricic said.  Supporting charities and not-for-profit groups helped signal to consumers your company valued ethics and stood for more than just profit. It marked you as not just a business, but a valuable member of the community.  “It’s beneficial for you and also for the charity itself.  “I think it’s fantastic to see so many small businesses now that are becoming involved in CSR across multiple areas. And that can have a huge impact for the community really.”

It was estimated about 90 per cent of Australian businesses were SMEs. If each one of them contributed a small amount of time or money to charity it would have a huge impact. Giving back could entail anything from sponsoring a junior sports team to allowing staff time off to volunteer at a local charity. In turn, businesses reaped rewards in everything from brand recognition to staff happiness.

“It really pays off in multiple ways. Employees who felt their company had a social conscience were more enthusiastic and engaged employees.”

CSR was also an effective path to establishing brand trust, which was key for small business success. A study cited by Australian academics in The Conversation in November found social responsibility practices generated a feeling of trust among company stakeholders and were crucial in boosting firms’ long-term competitiveness. The study also found a positive link between CSR and financial performance.

But Ms Maricic cautioned against viewing CSR as a potential business boost. The motivation first and foremost should be to do good.  “If you’re not really coming from an authentic position, then people are going to see through it,” she said. Ms Maricic advised business owners to “find your passion” when deciding what causes to support. It did not need to link to your business.

“Women’s rights and children’s rights are my passion,” Ms Maricic said. She instituted a small but simple plan in her business to both thank clients and support a favoured charity.  “Every time I get a new client I ask where they heard about us. I then contact the referrer and they have a choice. I can either post them out a free movie ticket or, for the value of the ticket, we will buy a school bag for someone who is trying to go back to school in west Africa. “I’ve never had someone want the movie ticket yet.”

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