12/13/2011 09:33 EST | Updated 02/12/2012 05:12 EST

Corporate Citizenship: Big Cheques Just Don't Cut it

A cynic might suggest that for thousands of companies, the notion of corporate citizenship is something simply managed by a marketing department, providing executives with the opportunity to point to some superficial initiative and proudly claim they are "doing good." Picture the grinning exec with the big cheque.

While there are companies out there that still fit this description, it's generally become a dated notion. In fact, a strong majority of companies today are taking a serious approach to corporate citizenship, CSR and cause marketing. However, that doesn't mean all this "good work" is being done with the most altruistic motives. Companies recognize that generosity is increasingly a key factor in a company's reputation.

Regardless of their motives, the fact that there is in fact motivation is encouraging. Corporate Canada is giving back, lending a hand and rallying support like never before. As someone who has been singing the praises (and benefits) of corporate citizenship to anyone who will listen, I couldn't be happier to finally see the link to reputation so clearly defined.

I watch a myriad of industries and how they approach CSR and cause marketing and I've consulted with a broad range of companies -- some that were already successful and some that struggled in this area. There has been a shift in Canadian attitudes toward the importance of companies conducting and communicating their corporate citizenship -- the number one miss is often a lack of understanding of what people want to hear.

The new normal in communication is authenticity, transparency and accessibility -- yet, most companies throw this out the window when developing a cause platform. In fact, the dollar amount on the novelty cheque is the least significant piece of information for the general public. They want details about the donation's impact and the solution it drives. So, this "impact" -- the details of what is being solved (and for whom), is the most important element of any corporate giving story. It's what creates an emotional connection to the cause -- and ultimately the company supporting it.

It's no wonder, Canadians want to hear about the quality -- not the quantity -- of corporate Canada's donations and initiatives. But I would also suggest that people would like to see more innovative ways to raise money, rather than soliciting donations from its customers. Uncertain economic conditions make it tough for some Canadians to donate like they have in years past (although StatsCan recently released numbers showing a 6.5 per cent increase in donations in 2010). But regardless, Canadians prefer to spend the dollars they have with companies that have a reputation of being great corporate citizens -- believing some of their money will support the cause as well.

Does this mean that with the right story, a firm commitment to a relevant cause can be very favourable to a company's bottom line? I don't think it's that's simple, but I do think it's fair to say it can multiply the effects of the affinity of consumers.

If there's ever been a time for your organization to get serious about corporate citizenship, cause marketing or CSR, it's now. Customers, partners and influencers use corporate citizenship as a key factor in determining reputation. But more importantly, they reward companies that tell a great story about how they are making the world a better place.