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Today's consumers are increasingly aware that their spending habits impact social change, and they want to spend their money with companies that support their personal values. Corporate social responsibility can improve your community and inspire the public to positively promote your brand.

By Janet Liao

Collecting warm winter coats isn't the primary business of Lakeshore Athletic Clubs, but this fall, the Chicago-based fitness club was on a campaign to collect more than 600 jackets to donate to the White Elephant Resale Shop, where proceeds from sales benefit patients treated at the local Children's Memorial Hospital.

Whether it's sponsoring a charitable event or integrating a marketing campaign with a nonprofit cause, more businesses are getting involved in the business of philanthropy and are making social responsibility a part of company culture.

Because of its philanthropic efforts, Lakeshore Athletic Club has given back to its community and has sold more gym memberships. "New members receive $50 off the enrollment fee if they donate a coat and existing members receive a $25 gift card towards the club's products or services," says Bob Good, Lakeshore's sales director. Good coordinates several fundraisers and events each year in conjunction with local charities and nonprofit foundations, including the Leukemia Research Foundation, AMVETS, Big Brother's Big Sister's and U.S. Marines Toys for Tots.

Building a Positive Brand
Consumer culture has become experience-driven, says Dov Seidman, CEO of LRN in Los Angeles, a company that helps businesses develop ethical corporate cultures and author of HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Business (and in Life). "Consumers don't just want products or services anymore," Seidman says. "They want a rich and valuable experience, and experience happens when people relate to each other."

What's more, how your company appeals to your customers, on an authentic, ethical or social level, could win (or cost you) a customer, says Seidman. "Consumers and shoppers today are more conscientious," he says. "They want to have genuine relationships with companies, and they want to know what companies are really about."

Studies show that a business's ethics can influence purchases. Seventy-two percent of respondents said they prefer to purchase products and services from a company with ethical business practices and higher prices, rather than from one with questionable business practices and lower prices, according to an Opinion Research Corp. survey of 2,000 U.S. adults conducted for LRN.

Giving Back — On Company Time
To build those genuine relationships with the community, it's not uncommon for companies to encourage their employees to roll up their sleeves and volunteer for charitable causes. Cbeyond, an Atlanta-based managed services provider that delivers integrated packages of IT communications services to small businesses in the United States, understands that its impact on society extends beyond the products and services it provides.

"Every company is in the business to provide products and services to customers," says Michelle Tank, director of public relations and community affairs at Cbeyond. "But a company with employees that engages in corporate social responsibility and makes a positive impact on the community stands out."

At Cbeyond, social responsibility is a core part of company culture. In 2004, Cbeyond launched a networking and volunteer program, CbeyondCommunity Connections, that gives each employee eight hours of paid time off annually to participate in volunteer work. It also encourages employees to take part in the numerous opportunities to get involved in business networking groups and industry associations that are relevant to their small business customers.

"It has increased awareness of brand within and outside of our company," Tank says. "As our employees are out volunteering and interacting with the community, they naturally talk about Cbeyond, and it creates word-of-mouth marketing for the company."

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