"As a business, your first and foremost obligation is to run a responsible business, to treat employees and customers well," says Lori Harnick, GM of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Microsoft.
We spoke with Harnick to understand how businesses of all sizes can benefit from investing in their communities, whether financially, through time, or other means. Harnick describes supporting the economic vitality of your community as a win-win situation. "The healthier a community, the more it can thrive and grow and appreciate what your business can offer in terms of products and services."
Here are three steps your business can take right now to step up your community involvement.
1. Identify your unique skills
"It's the same for large or small business: the best thing you can do for your community is bring what you do uniquely to bear on the challenges you see." As Harnick sees it, a business's best asset is its employees. And when given an outlet to apply their varied talents and expertise, employees can solve issues within your community.
Harnick notes that creating relationships is the most important aspect. "You never know what insights you'll get from people in your marketplace about what they really need," she says. This can help your business serve your community even better and find common ground with your customers. "It allows you to establish a relationship with your customers on a completely different plane."
2. Start small
Start with one-on-one engagements that help a nonprofit or a school solve a particular challenge. "It doesn't require money when an employee gets involved with their community[SL3] ," says Harnick. "TEALS [Technology Education and Literacy in Schools] started extremely small. One engineer decided he was going to teach computer science 101 at a local school." Now, the program has more than 300 volunteers around the country from Microsoft and other companies.
"The employee identified a need and a way they could uniquely provide value," says Harnick. "The company listened and decided to invest where they saw an opportunity." Harnick emphasizes the need to listen to what employees are saying. "If they are passionate about addressing the need, they will run with it."
3. Join existing community efforts
"It's easier for a business to attach to a program versus create another program," Harnick explains. "TEALS is open to engineers from all kinds of tech companies." Your business can think about joining existing efforts, rather than worrying about oversight and logistics in creating your own. Harnick suggests contacting local chapters of organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA, Junior Achievement, and Year Up.
"Your business may not have as many resources as a large company," says Harnick. "But the more you can focus on addressing a specific problem in the local community, the better it will be for the community and the better it will be for your business and employees."