A successful business isn't just one that makes money--it's one that serves as a pillar of its community, near and far.

That paradigm--the one summed up by "corporate social responsibility" (CSR)--is now generally accepted as true. For proof, 92% of S&P 500 companies published sustainability reports in 2020. A mere ten years prior, only 20% did.

CSR may be a modern necessity, but it's still brand new.

As such, not every company knows how to "give back" meaningfully.

As Andrew Carnegie's famous quote goes, "It is more difficult to give money away intelligently than to earn it in the first place." Building a business has the quantifiable goal of boosting your bottom line; showing up for your community has the intangible goal of making an impact. To navigate that intangible goal, your organization needs some tangible guiding principles.

Here are 3 steps to build a meaningful "giving back" program:

Step 1: Identify a real need that you're equipped to address.

Real needs come in all shapes and sizes. Some are the temporary results of unforeseeable events, as when people are displaced after a natural disaster. Some are specific to a local community, as in the case of a San Francisco homeless shelter with an ongoing deficit of women's undergarments. Others are endemic to society--the wealth gap, racial inequity, gender inequity...the list (sadly) goes on and on.

Any single company's give-back programs can't be everything to everyone. Before throwing resources at the first need that is presented to you, find needs that you're uniquely equipped to address.

That SF-based homeless shelter example is a real one for us. When we first started as a business, they reached out to tell us how they always need high-quality undergarments but could never find any company to provide donations. Most clothing companies throw out (or even burn) excess inventory--this was a way for us to put ours to meaningful use.

Step 2: Find great partners with similar values.

The right partnership can be the missing link between your resources and a community in need. The current war in Ukraine is a great example. Most of us are horrified by Russia's actions, but we feel powerless to do anything for the Ukrainian people.

We recently managed to partner with two organizations we've worked with in the past, who were coordinating between direct-to-consumer brands and organizations working to support Ukrainian refugees. They assessed Ukrainians' needs, then found partners able to help, and then made sure the products arrived to the right people at the right locations.

As when you're building a business, you might feel that giving back is best done alone. But finding the right partnerships helps you leverage multiple spheres of expertise and can dramatically increase your impact.

Step 3: Think seriously about what type of support you can provide.

Giving money is better than doing nothing, but money on its own is not aid. Money is potential--if used the right way, it can make an impact, but that's a big "if." 

Are there ways for your organization to cut out the financial middleman and provide more immediate aid? Do you have a product or service that you could send directly to a community in need?

A few years back, I read an article in the New York Post about how boats were crushing turtle shells, and that wildlife support groups needed bra clasps to help repair them. I would never in a million years have made that connection. So, we sent the organization a bunch of bras, and they used the clasps the way surgeons use stitches, to keep the shells intact while they repaired themselves.

Giving back meaningfully has innumerable benefits. Chiefly, it helps communities (human or otherwise) in need. When you find places your business can uniquely make an impact in giving back to communities, you'll find your team, your customers, and your partners will want to engage and connect even more. And from that starting point, you'll be able to continue to evolve and grow your CSR programs.