Thomas W. Knowlton, is a Partner at TCC Group, a mission-driven consulting firm that collaborates with leaders to solve complex social problems. He leads the firm’s Corporate Citizenship practice, and over the course of his career has worked with numerous companies on the development of their corporate citizenship strategies and initiatives. Knowlton is a thought leader who writes and speaks extensively on the subject of corporate citizenship, the role of corporations in society, and approaches by companies to address complex social problems.
Christopher P. Skroupa: What does it mean to be a strong corporate citizen?
Thomas Knowlton: The best corporate citizens are providing positive value to society and meeting or exceeding the expectations of their stakeholders. That means they are clear about their purpose, have clear social impact goals that align with their purpose and are able to communicate the results of their initiatives clearly to their stakeholders.
The best companies have built a strong level of trust with their stakeholders – customers, employees, government officials, suppliers and community leaders.
We help companies build this trust by first developing a corporate citizenship framework based on the primary drivers of stakeholder expectations:
- The impact of their products and services;
- The impact of their operations – employment, environmental, etc.; and
- The impact of their citizenship programs in the communities where they operate.
Once the framework is established, we work with corporate citizenship leaders to either develop or strengthen initiatives to ensure they achieve the social impact goals that are critical to building strong relationships with their stakeholders. This creates a number of benefits for the company, resulting in improved reputation, increased employee retention, more effective recruiting, and increased loyalty from their customers.
Skroupa: How can a company show strong corporate citizenship?
Knowlton: The best companies make commitments to issues that are important to their stakeholders, develop comprehensive initiatives with the right partners and communicate results clearly – think outcomes, not outputs.
We are seeing more companies make commitments around issues like gun violence, LGBTQ rights and climate change because their employees and stakeholders are demanding it.
The strongest companies back up those commitments with signature initiatives that have clearly developed goals, strong partners, engagement of key stakeholders, a well-developed communication plan and an evaluation framework that ensures data is being captured to guide the strategic development of the initiative.
Skroupa: Who are the right people to bring into that conversation?
Knowlton: We interviewed some of the leading corporate citizens about their structure – a consistent finding was that a company needs a strong corporate citizenship leader who can engage the CEO and senior leaders as necessary. Most corporate citizen leaders are only working in the community space – the third driver. A strong corporate citizenship leader addresses the impacts from operations, and products and services, as well as community – and is capable of bringing people to the table from different departments and regions depending on the outcome goal and what is needed to achieve it. The corporate citizenship leader also needs to work with stakeholder engagement leaders – HR, marketing, communication, corporate relations, public affairs – to ensure that stakeholders are engaged and reached with the right messages.
Skroupa: What are some of the challenges of being a strong corporate citizenship leader?
Knowlton: Strong corporate citizenship leaders spend a tremendous amount of time engaging with internal and external stakeholders. One of their biggest challenges is ensuring they have a talented team with the ability and experience to design and implement initiatives. Many companies still have limited staff in their corporate citizenship department, so we work with a number of clients that need additional capacity to develop their strategic approach and/or also need assistance with evaluation, stakeholder engagement, partner/grantee capacity building, grants management and strategic communication.
Skroupa: Do you have any final thoughts?
Knowlton: Companies need to make sure their corporate citizenship efforts are aligned with company goals and providing value to both society and the company. Many companies have in place a number of programs and initiatives that are promising but not developed at the level that will build strong relationships with stakeholders and provide maximum benefits for society and the company.
Commit to the issues that will build trust with your stakeholders, create clear goals and develop initiatives that will ensure achievement of those goals. Finally, make sure you have a strong communications plan that reaches all of your stakeholders.
Thomas Knowlton recently spoke on a panel entitled Employee Engagement: Aligning Corporate and Social Purpose at the CSR 4.0 conference that took place on March 1, 2018.
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