With all the right intentions, hoards of companies – large & small, franchised & wholly owned, domestic & international – have accepted the calling to be good corporate citizens. In response, they are diligently implementing corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs that address sustainability, philanthropy, community involvement and other goodwill requirements.

With the experience of working with well over 150 companies, I’ve seen many companies make serious but avoidable mistakes that can overshadow the well intentioned CSR investments.  The errors have resulted in damage to the brand and/or to the “responsible” person’s career.  Here are some of the top causes:

1. Misalignment of the cause with the business.
A company in the fast food business probably has no real ability to fix the US educational system.  A retail clothing store probably can’t solve world hunger.  Sure, corporate foundations can give money to other organizations such as non-profits or non-governmental organizations (NGO) that have expertise in those areas. More likely, the company would be better served if the selected cause leveraged the skills, connections, and resources within the company.  Fed-Ex, for example, donates its transportation services to support emergency situations such as disaster relief and organ transplants.  Cargill, a large commercial supplier of food ingredients and food-related products and service, actively supports the UN World Food Program.  Build-A-Bear uses its products to bring joy to disadvantaged or ill children and HP donates computers to underserved classrooms.   While simultaneously serving the sales and marketing messages, these causes reflect the business competency and as such, the programs make sense to investors, employees and all partners involved.  The unifying and memorable theme helps rally the company’s available resources which deliver something meaningful and having real impact.

2. Focusing only on one aspect of CSR.

I applaud companies that are committed to giving money to local charities but not if they write checks and then dump manufacturing waste into their community’s water supply. I’ve seen companies that are intent on improving their environmental sustainability but at the expense of their human rights or governance policies.  CSR is a very broad subject and while every aspect is important, addressing the entire range of CSR requirements is critical so that you don’t rob Peter to pay Paul.

3. Not having a CSR roadmap.

To do effective CSR, you need to have many pieces come together such as the branding, the messaging, the strategy and specific plans across functions and perhaps geographies and affiliates/partners/suppliers.  Without a plan in place, it is impossible to coordinate the necessary company resources and have everyone truly committed to being good corporate citizens.  Much like building a product, CSR programs have many interdependencies and milestones to coordinate.  Without a roadmap, employees will be in motion but potentially heading to different destinations.

4. Failing to communicate internally.

One of the biggest challenges remains getting internal people motivated and involved with CSR initiatives.  Much of this is due to lack of effective internal communications.  Leading companies use repetitive “inreach” via a multiplicity of channels such as intranets, newsletters, posters, and emails to let employees know about new volunteer opportunities, charitable drives and other CSR initiatives.  Cutting edge companies are using means such as paycheck statements, text messaging and broadcast voicemails which can creatively reach the mixed demographics of the internal audience.

5. Poorly communicating externally.

Communicating CSR to the outside stakeholders requires a new way to market without spin and with defendable depth.  As the art form is just coming of age, you can already see CSR presented on websites, advertisements, and annual reports.  Special CSR Annual Reports are now common among 50%+ of public Fortune 100 companies who are also exploring web video, billboards and other eco-friendly means to get the word out in an effective and yet humble manner.

6. Not taking advantage of employee volunteerism.

Employee volunteerism is proven to increase employee leadership skills, create happier and healthier employees and help boost a company’s reportable giving contributions (if supported by paid time off).  Employee volunteerism is a great way to get the entire team into the CSR spirit with minimal investment or management.  There is no better way to create company evangelists who will enthusiastically spread a good will message to the outside world.

7. Giving without any rules.

Any company that donates cash or in-kind resources to a worthy charity should be commended.  However, I often see companies that pick a charity because a senior manager or other power player has a personal connection or affinity.  Or, the company gives small (usually non-impactful) donations to multiple charities.  Without clear guidelines to whom and how charitable donations are granted, there is a potential liability to the company and individual who is “making” those decisions.  Whether those decisions are fair and support the anti-discriminatory ethics the company supports is also questionable.  While its hard to say no to Johnny’s little league team, it is even harder to say no to your best customer’s favorite charity unless there are clear rules about how those decisions are made and the application process leading into it.

Whether you think Corporate Social Responsibility is a trend, a nuisance or a required part of all businesses, if you are going to do it, do it responsibly.  Because of the transparency required to do proper CSR, a poorly executed program can negatively affect the business in many ways.  It takes one missing element, one arrogant blogger or one angry ex-employee to publicly point out the failings of the good works that the company is so proudly touting.  Don’t let these avoidable issues cause you and your company negative repercussions from your otherwise good intentions. When done well, CSR is a tremendous advantage to the entire business.

Author: Formerly a CMO for a public company, Dver is chief executive for Mint Green Marketing which consults for companies ranging from large multinationals to small startups. In 2007, BusinessWeek recognized Dver as one of 8 female entrepreneurs to watch.  She authored the well-endorsed books, “No Time Marketing” and previously, “Software Product Management Essentials”. A featured columnist for Software Magazine, she has also been published in Forbes, BusinessWeek, Entrepreneur, Promo Magazine, and dozens of others. Ms. Dver regularly presents at venues including The World Diversity Leadership Summit at the UN, The Women’s Congress, The American Marketing and American Banking Associations, and Strategic Management Institute.