Community engagement - what the HR experts think

Sophie Henderson
Founder and Managing Director
Derigo Solutions
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Actively engaging with the local community is often the last thing on the mind of an overworked CEO or HR professional. But today, community engagement really does matter.

It can even make the difference between success and failure, and it’s no secret that consumers are more socially conscious than ever before. In fact, 55 per cent of customers will pay extra for products and services from businesses that have a positive social and environmental impact.

Companies that really get Corporate and Social Responsibility, and can demonstrate active community engagement, do reap the rewards.  

3 companies who are engaging with their community

Howard de Walden Estates is a great example of a company who has put their money where their mouth is. It has found the perfect way to engage with the community and give back to local charity too. Every year they fund and organise the Marylebone Summer Festival, a weekend packed full of events including a film night and fayre, so hundreds of local people can have fun, all in aid of a good cause.

Key West Holdings is another great example. Owner of catering supplies retailer Nisbets, the business not only makes a conscious effort to recruit locally but through its charitable arm, The Nisbet Trust, it also helps a number of local charities which support young people and the arts in Greater Bristol, UK. Anne and Andrew Nisbet recently wrote that businesses “should seek to give back to the local community who have supported and nurtured [their] businesses over the generations.”

Appt Corporation has found the perfect way to engage locally and celebrate the heroes in our communities through the Atul Pathak Community Awards. These annual awards recognise local groups who make a real difference in London and Berkshire. With a glittering awards night held at the House of Commons, the prizes include a donation from the Appt Corporation to support them in their work. 

5 reasons why engaging with your community is a good idea

Community engagement isn’t just a box-ticking exercise, it’s good business practice. Here are five reasons why your company should consider launching a local community engagement or outreach scheme.

  1. It’s good for your employees. Engagement activities are personally rewarding for your staff. They allow them to make a difference to others and get involved in the local area. This leads to higher levels of morale and may even increase productivity.
  2. It builds awareness of your company locally. Every time you reach out to your local community, you’re marketing your business, converting new customers, and changing any negative perceptions into positive ones. 
  3. It brings you in to contact with new local people. This can be more useful than you might imagine. Local communities change over time, new people move in to the area and they might just have the skills you need to keep on growing. 
  4. It helps your brand stand apart and get ahead. Community engagement demonstrates that you’re different; that your brand cares about people, the environment and building a healthy local society.
  5. Because it's the right thing to do! You know that community engagement makes sense – you just need to get on and do it. 

5 ways to engage with your community

Even when you’re committed to the idea of community engagement, it can be hard to decide how to put it into action. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  1. Giving to local charities and causes. This is the simplest and quickest way to kick-start your engagement programme. Choose under-supported local groups, make contact and start donating today. 
  2. Sponsoring and running local events. Every local community has the space and capacity for you to get a local event up and running – even if it’s as simple as a jumble sale. Get in contact with your local community groups, work with them and get out there!
  3. Running a schools’ outreach programme. Local schools are always on the lookout to partner with businesses, and it’s a great way to support children and young people as well as demonstrating your social conscience to their parents. 
  4. Opening up private land for community use. Not every business will have land or facilities that are suitable for use by the public, but if you have, then consider allowing local groups to use your facilities at the weekends or in the evenings.
  5. Focusing on creating jobs locally. Before you put your next ad into a national newspaper, think about your local press first, and consider running open days for local people. You might find that your best employees are right on your doorstep.    

What the experts say

Community engagement is vital to your business. But don’t just take my word for here. Here is what the world’s leading experts on the subject say – I spoke to people from a range of different business, big and small, to get their take on community engagement.

Employee engagement

Many the world’s leading HR experts pointed out to me how community engagement plays a critical role in making sure that your workforce is happy, engaged, and feels connected to the business and your community.

Talent expert Gautam Ghosh said: "Community outreach helps employee engagement as employees see themselves impacting their immediate society directly. That is especially true for functions who might not come into direct contact with clients and customers."

Gordon Tredgold, owner of Gordon Tredgold LLC, said: "Community engagement schemes give employees a chance to get direct positive feedback for their efforts, which increases their engagement, one company doubled their revenue using such an approach. Before they donated a lot to charity, but teams don't feel it the same when they see their CEO hand over a cheque. But they feel the direct feedback from their communities, they feel part of it, the feel involved and this overflows into their daily jobs."

Fela Hughes, CEO of Buengo, said: "Community engagement programmes are essential – employees need to feel like their company is giving back and want to be a part of this effort. Something like Buengo [an app to raise money for good causes] offers a fantastic opportunity to work together and break down barriers between different departments and teams."

Marielle Smith, VP of People at GoodHire, said: "Developing and implementing a community engagement program is great way to build a more connected team, especially when the program aligns with the company's mission. Volunteering contributes to people's overall sense of happiness and wellbeing, and such programs increase employees' satisfaction on the job by reinforcing feelings that they're part of a team and contributing to the company's values, culture, and mission."

HR speaker and expert Jason Lauritsen said: “One of the often overlooked benefits of community engagement programs is the relationship building that happens between employees when they are out together volunteering. These experiences foster connectedness that leads to improved employee engagement and a feeling of purpose.”

Skills development

As well as engaging your workforce, community engagement programmes and volunteering specifically is a powerful way to help your employees develop new skills.

Jerome Tennille, Manager of Volunteerism at Marriott International, said: "Volunteering in a community if engaged correctly can provide the opportunity for junior employees who hold non-management positions to gain management experience through their initiating, planning, project managing and executing events that support a local community or non-profit. In addition to that, a company can develop the employability of specific underserved or disadvantaged populations, while exposing that same population to an industry or career they may have never thought about pursuing. And lastly, there's clearly a benefit for the community being served that translates into trust, goodwill and potential future customers."

Hiring

But community engagement doesn’t only help your existing employees, it also helps you build a pipeline of potential new recruits for the future.

Matthew W. Burr, owner of Burr Consulting, said: "As an HR professional, I take volunteer work as serious as work experience on a resume or application. I believe that applicants are also looking at community focused organizations that they can and will have the opportunity to volunteer and participate in at work."

William Tincup, President of RecruitingDaily.com, said: “Community building via cause-related marketing is important to recruiting efforts as you never know where your next greatest hire will come from. It's more than just doing the right thing, it's a great way to nurture a talent community. The added bonus is you get to see what your potential employees are all about.”

Meg Kean, EVP, Talent & HR at EVERFI, said: "Community engagement definitely aligns with EVERFI's core values and makes employees feel good about our mission. It also organically helps us recruit new talent and retain our employees, lowering our recruitment costs.”

Donna Rogers Skowronski, founder of Rogers HR, said: “Students are at a huge disadvantage when they grow up and don't really have a job or career influence outside their own family.  There are so many career fields they don't have any knowledge or understanding about because they have never known anyone in jobs other than their parents or extended families. If organizations can start thinking of recruiting and branding from the very young and continuing to make a presence in the places they frequent most the employment application flow can benefit greatly down the road. I think there are many opportunities like classroom financial matches, event sponsorship, career day visits and presentations, etc.”

Talent management strategist Dorothy Dalton said: “[Engagement schemes provide] the opportunity to enhance the employer brand by sending in role models and champions into schools and colleges to raise awareness around career opportunities. Which groups are targeted would depend on the composition of the organisation, but  it presents a great opportunity to focus on groups that are missing in their workplaces. This could include, women, the disabled, ethnic minorities, LGBT or other groups. Opportunities offered could be via work experience, career talks, job shadowing, internships, mentoring and even university scholarships.”

Distinguish yourself

In a competitive economy it is more important to get your company to stand out from the crowd, distinguish yourself, and create a brand that people genuinely flock to.

Talent expert Kris Dunn and founder of HR Capitalist: “I think the biggest impact to this – above and beyond contributing to society – is the move to all employment brands to have an element of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).  Candidates and employees alike are increasingly demanding a CSR connection of the organization they work for to the outside world, with the trend strongest among millennials and a younger demographic, but emerging as a desire for Gen X and Boomers.”

Suzanne Bennett, Group HR Manager at Nigel Wright Group, said: "Nigel Wright frequently take part in free events and workshops that allow young people to gain valuable experience in preparing them for the world of work. With employer branding being more important today than ever before, involvement in a community engagement programme can make up part of the mix that helps your company's brand stand apart from the crowd, aiding in staff acquisition and retention."

Nate Masterson, HR Manager for Maple Holistics, said: "Corporate social responsibility is no small matter. Besides for contributing to the betterment of society, studies show that consumers respond to businesses that are involved in the community. Sponsor a local youth team; every community has local youth sports teams looking for sponsors for all kinds of equipment and small businesses should capitalize on this need. Besides for getting your name out there and its association with a good cause, few things bring people together like sports."

Chris Eccles from Employment4students.co.uk said: "We run a community engagement programme in our town that helps prepare young people for the world of work via mock interviews, employability workshops, and work experience. Our engagement programme has raised our profile amongst the local community which has generated new business from local customers, created a talent pipeline of school leavers who are aligned with our values, and established links with key town stakeholders such as schools and the council."

Entrepreneur and HR expert Greg Savage said: "Marketing used to be basically branding. Success was defined as the customer saying 'we know you'. Then with social media switched to engagement and conversation so it was 'we know you, and we like you'... but now modern marketing is so much more. You have to use data and communication so that the customer says 'we know you, we like you and you know me!' That's where community engagement fits in."

It's the right thing to do

But it goes beyond just economic benefit. Launching and running a community engagement programme is a good idea because giving back to the local community – who have often supported the development of your business – is the right thing to do.

Arpit Gupta, CMO at Jobbio, said: "Back in June Jobbio joined forces with Hackney Council to help local startups meet with potential employees from the area during Startup Open House. Local community engagement programmes should form a part of every business – it's an opportunity to show your company is not a stand-alone business but a part of something bigger, that is contributing to bringing people together and helping them grow. Companies can have a big impact on the local economy, connecting people and inspiring the next generation."

Sally Eley, Director of Corporate Relations at City & Guilds Group, said: "Community engagement for us is non-negotiable. If we didn't engage with local communities, we would not be achieving the City & Guilds Group purpose: helping people, organisations and economies develop their skills for growth. It's as critical that we engage communities in the commercial areas of the Group as it is for our social purpose as a charitable business. The benefits of working closely with communities in all the countries and regions where we operate means we can be confident from a strategic perspective that we are developing and delivering the products and services they really need."

It helps in all these ways

But the real answer is there isn’t just one reason for launching and running a community engagement programme – there are lots, as many of the experts pointed out.

Froswa' Booker-Drew, author and owner of Soulstice, said: "Community Engagement Programs are important for companies for several reasons.  These programs are not just about financial gain or visibility but it is an opportunity to learn more about the communities that facilities are located in.  It is important to consider that you are a part of the communities and as a neighbor, what can you do to improve the area not just for your employees but for the residents who are customers and are impacted by your work?"

Ari Goldfarb, COO of Follow the Hummingbird Consulting, said: "Local engagement is important for entrepreneurs and small business owners because it not only strengthens your brand but also stimulates the local economy. Engaging with the community creates a sense of trust and transparency, it also helps you and your business come across as experts in your specific field."

Susan Power, owner of Power HR, said: "Community-driven outreach and programs needs to be done for one main reason: leadership! For-profit companies have a responsibility to give back to the communities that they serve. The leaders of those organizations should demonstrate leadership in building the prosperity of the community. As a customer, I want to give my business to those organizations. Even more so, as an employee, I want to work for those organizations."

Carl Reader, the small business expert, said: "It's a no brainer! Community engagement helps staff engagement, customer engagement, and gives everyone in the business something more to work for than just a pay cheque."

About Sophie Henderson

Sophie Henderson

I am founder of Derigo Solutions (www.derigosolutions.com), a consultancy that provides HR and workforce advice to private and family-owned businesses.

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