Ethical, profitable, and PR-friendly – many businesses are tentatively dipping their toes into the pool of ‘community engagement’. In fact, some kind of charitable scheme or salacious PR strategy is the norm for most large corporations; but what about the little guys?

Any good businessperson understands that your community and your customers are the same thing. Writ large, this means large sponsorships, donations, or collaborations with NGOs. For example, Large UK Supermarket chain Tesco is giving all surplus fresh food away to FareShare food banks. While small businesses might struggle to make such grand gestures of benevolence, community engagement is still every bit as (if not more) worthwhile, and doesn’t always mean traditional charity.

While community engagement is first and foremost, for the benefit of the community you work and trade in, if you’re doing something in the name of or on behalf of your business, it needs to be productive. Pick something that is useful for the community and your business – it doesn’t have to translate into revenue directly, but it does need to be clever and relevant.

Get involved in something your stakeholders care about, whether it’s as local issue, a global cause or something else you know they are invested in. Target a prime stakeholder or think more broadly about how you can relate your community engagement back to the usefulness of your business.

Don’t forget your most important stakeholder here, the customer. If you have a new area, demographic, or group you need to reach. Tailor your engagement to them, and expand your customer base.

Think of your engagement as a great opportunity – if this brings you closer to your community, then you are in prime position to introduce your brand, network, or gather attitudes. Similarly Community engagement events can be excellent networking opportunities. Smaller businesses, whether local or online, all have a community. Many small businesses are more connected and conscious of theirs than their larger opponents, and this connectedness should be grasped with both hands.

First things first – whether you’re planning a traditional charitable policy or a puppy pageant, you will first need to define your budget – whether this be in hours, finance, units of your product (or all three).

If you have identified a charity, outreach project, or group that you want to work with, begin building your relationship on a good foundation – the longer lasting and better a relationship, the more fruitful it tends to be for both parties. While a one-off payment can boost your image and help the recipients in the short term, a longer lasting partnership can continue to improve.

If you offer a service or product – can this be directly relevant to your charity? Showcasing the company’s strengths? Don’t just think of the obvious ‘needy’ groups that are most likely being served by other businesses, make your ethics AND your product stand out – if you’re a tech start up, run a HTML class for kids or computers for care homes scheme. This kind of thing is considered ‘Cause Related Marketing’ which leads people to associate you, your brand, and your product with a social good.

While aggressive marketing tactics are ill advised, business has to come first, so just make what you’re doing mutually beneficial – most small businesses can’t afford to give anything away.

If you trade to a locality, and are looking to attract customers from the next town, county, or city, consider moving your engagement efforts to this new area. If you’re an online business find new ‘areas’ there too, using social media creatively and performing outreach online. The internet offers countless ways of supporting a community cluster while serving your business too. Online engagement strategies such as giveaways, competitions and newsletters are great – but be sure to cultivate your online following with regular updates and activities.

Once you’ve pinned down your engagement targets, the aim is to engage. Cheque handovers just don’t seem to cut it to foster real engagement in this day and age, so get your thinking cap on, and harness any creative staff you might have; in fact, get the whole team involved. Whether you’re designing a new community space, supplying something for an exciting event, or holding and exhibition – do it the best, most interesting way you can.

Youth work is the truest investment a local company can make – From pre-school to university, tap into potential talent early, and signal to any potential parent or teacher clients that you are on their side. Similarly, Ex-offenders or ex-servicemen and women, while often stereotyped, can provide an excellent source of talented and eager employees.
If time is short, and dreaming up an engagement strategy is beyond your means, payroll giving is a great way to get your workforce involved in the cause – automatically donating to a charity of their choice each month, costing you minimal time and money – Just make sure it’s optional! If this is too high-tech for you, an imaginative collection box or kitty can serve the same purpose.

Another way to be proactive and visible and little to no cost is volunteering – a time honoured and useful way to invest in projects, groups, or causes. Employees can represent the company, help the community, and be part of a great team building exercise to boot. What’s more, these sorts of activities are proven to increase retention, productivity and general job satisfaction.

Community engagement, whether it be through charity, cultivating talent, or fun events, is just that – engagement; one of the single most important factors for a small, expanding business in a competitive market.