Community is a multifaceted word. There are hundreds of touchpoints where your firm can connect with and do good for your local communities. Every day the phone rings or something arrives in the mail with a new suggestion on how your firm can help and give back to your community. In today’s Plain Talk article, we’ll review the best way to approach community engagement and how this approach can help your firm to grow.
What is community engagement?
Community engagement is defined by the CDC as “The process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people. It is a powerful vehicle for bringing about environmental and behavioral changes that will improve the health of the community and its members. It often involves partnerships and coalitions that help mobilize resources and influence systems, change relationships among partners, and serve as catalysts for changing policies, programs, and practices.” (CDC, 1997).
Three reasons community engagement is important
1. It’s the right thing to do – Basic business ethics dictate that being actively involved in your community is the right thing to do.
2. It’s great for employee retention and recruitment – Let’s face it. Working in law can be exciting but can also be stressful, even to the point of some employees losing focus on why they pursued working in legal services in the first place. Active and regular community engagement in any form can become a source of pride for your law firm and its employees. In fact, one study noted that legal firms with deliberate corporate social responsibility plans were considerably more likely to retain their employees.
3. Your prospective clients value it – The old phrase “doing well by doing good” has never been more relevant. One recent study noted that up to 75% of people consider a brand’s corporate social responsibility and community engagement when deciding on a purchase. And your firm isn’t just a firm. It’s a brand.
When done right, community involvement advances your brand, making new client lead generation and client referral more frictionless and likewise making recruitment easier as associates and potential associates can see your firm as fulfilling an ethically necessary role and making the world a better place. In an earlier Plain Talk article, we discuss how ethical drivers are three times more important than competence to consumers when determining their trust in a company. While we’d argue that this is likely weighted heavier for selecting a light beer than a lawyer, it is still a consideration deeply rooted in how people think, so it can’t be entirely discounted.
The realist in us also always knows that bad things will happen. If your firm continues to grow over time, someone will eventually make a bad choice and be in the public for it. Deep and significant roots, relevance and goodwill in the community provide a foundation and protective layer in times of turmoil and crisis. Well done, community involvement anchors you to your community in a positive way that can be the foundation your crisis communications efforts need to weather a public storm.
Now the how
So, how do you align your corporate citizenship with your firm’s brand objectives?
1. Assess the status quo!
This is an important step, even if this is as far as your firm gets. Schwartzapfel® Lawyers P.C., for example, lists all the charities and causes for which their associates contribute in the five-borough market they serve. Other law firms, like Thomas J. Henry Law, maintain a list of every charity they’ve helped over the years. Besides providing breadth to your community involvement webpage, inventorying what your firm and associates have done can show where the firm’s energy is and ensure employee engagement. If three senior partners donate regularly to a particular local charity or cause, it is probably worth a deeper look.
2. Be true and relevant to your brand and purpose.
Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, was adopted. Because of this, Wendy’s efforts have been focused on the adoption community through their efforts with their sister organization, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. They do this because they have a significant personal tie. With your law firm, absent a personal story skewing your efforts, it is best to align your coordinated efforts toward community involvement consistent with your purpose. For example, a patent firm might focus on technology incubators or high school STEM efforts. A family law firm might find its niche to be domestic abuse or child advocacy. Environmental law practices might focus on preserving natural resources or climate change. A personal injury firm might focus on workplace safety, public health, or advocacy for low-income seniors. Our client, Hughes & Coleman Injury Lawyers, a personal injury law firm, has provided kids with bicycle helmets, supports pediatric oncology efforts at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, but is also prepared to be responsive to local emergencies like aiding victims of the 2021 tornado disaster in western Kentucky.
3. Be deliberate and lean in!
If asked whether it’s more impactful to give $100 to 500 charities or $50,000 to one charity, the answer is obvious. The next question is, is it better to give $1,000 to 50 charities or $25,000 to 2 charities. If you’re going to do more than just list the charities and causes for which your associates donate (which we suggest you do), do so deliberately. Lean in!
- Make it part of your annual planning.When your firm plans your fiscal year, make your charitable contributions part of the plan.
- Set time, talent, and treasure objectives. Any practicing Catholic is familiar with the phrase time, talent and treasure, as the church uses it often, but it has significance as a reminder that there is more than one way to give. Your law firm and the individuals within it should be able, in many cases, to offer all three.
- Time – Where appropriate, make time contributions an option. If your firm primarily practices real estate law and your charity you support is Habitat for Humanity, permit your associates to spend an organized day or two building houses. Print up shirts and have fun with it. As lawyers, your time is of particular value, but you may also prove to be a proficient drywaller as well!
- Talent – Be on boards. Provide legal counsel where and when appropriate for your community organization of choice. Some law firms host “Free Legal Nights.” In doing so, they provide limited legal consultations to members in need. This sort of effort could be consistent with many community organizations’ missions.
- Treasure – The firm as a whole can give or provide a matching challenge to encourage associates to give. The firm could also organize solicitation efforts on behalf of the charity. By focusing your giving or matching gifts against a set charity, you can maximize the financial contributions against your aligned community activities or charities.
- Take recognition where recognition is due. Ideally, when someone thinks about your chosen charity in the community, your brand’s commitment to that organization should be synonymous with them. Simon Hanley Conroy Law Firm, headquartered in Alton, Illinois, has donated $10.2 million to Southern Illinois University (SIU) Simmon’s Cancer Institute. Almost all of the mesothelioma specialized firm’s charitable donations exceeding $20M have been toward efforts and organizations tied to cancer, specifically mesothelioma, including Miles for Meso and a platinum level sponsorship of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. Due to their size and concentration on a few concerted efforts, Simon Hanley Conroy has managed to get named recognition from almost all their efforts. While most law firms can’t contribute with enough mass to demand naming recognition, a public relations and social media effort can help get the word out to both support your cause and your firm’s involvement.
The secret is simple. First, identify all the light your firm and its associates are emitting into the community, then focus it into a laser and point it at just a few causes that are consistent with your firm’s brand and values. In doing so, you can make your efforts more meaningful for your community, your firm’s culture, and your individual associates. If you have questions or think your firm may benefit from some outside assistance in planning or executing a more concerted community involvement plan, give us a call at 502-499-4209 or drop us a note here, and we’ll be happy to help.