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Don't hate, appreciate: Socially responsible small businesses win millennials

© Provided by USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc.

By Rhonda Abrams, USA TODAY

“Don’t hate, hydrate,” screamed the ad on the poster.

Now, it may seem crazy, or craven, to use a social message to sell skin cream, but there’s an important lesson for you, small business owner, behind this marketing ploy. Today’s millennials expect companies – including small businesses – to have a social, as well as a business mission. Whether you want millennials as customers or employees, you better think about how your business affects the world. 

This point came home to me earlier this year when I was asked to speak to the capstone class of an MBA program. During the course of our conversation, I happened to mention that my book, "Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies" was the first business planning book to include the topics of social responsibility and social ventures. I mentioned that when I added those topics in the early 1990s, I thought it might cost me sales.

“After all,” I said, “at that time, common business wisdom was the only goal of a business was to make money – to increase profits and shareholder value. If there were causes the business owners or founders were concerned about, they should just write out a donation with their own money. Business had no business being concerned about social causes.”  

Well, did I ever unleash a firestorm of comments! The students in their early-to-late 20s – found it almost impossible to believe that a business would not consider social responsibility as part of its core mission. Now, faculty tell me that social responsibility is one of the most popular parts of their curriculum at every level. 

Today’s millennials  have grown up expecting companies to put social responsibility and social causes front and center. They don’t question how or why companies such as Tom’s Shoes, Warby Parker or Bombas Socks routinely give away a pair of shoes, glasses, or socks for each one sold. And while giving away products may not be necessary, millennials expect companies to explain where they source their materials from, how they treat their employees and vendors, and what impact they are having on the environment.

Now, much of what is touted as “social responsibility” may actually be “greenwashing” – a term used to describe a company that markets itself as doing good while actually not living up to its claims. So you need to be careful that you don’t over-promote the good you are trying to achieve in your small business.  

But being clear about your company’s purpose – as well as being as a commitment to social causes – gives you an edge in recruiting and motivating employees as well as reaching and retaining customers.  

An old story illustrates how having a sense of purpose can be a secret ingredient in getting employees to be more productive: 

Three workers are digging rocks in a quarry. A passerby sees each of the workers. The first laborer is working lackadaisically, doing a poor job, stopping often. “What are you doing,” asks the passerby. “I’m digging rocks,” answers the first worker.  

The passerby sees the second laborer is working harder, doing a better job, taking breaks less often. “What are you doing,” the passerby asks. “I’m not just digging rocks,” he says, “I’m working to feed my family.”  

The third laborer is working very hard. It’s clear the quality of his work is better, and he even seems to be smiling as he digs. “What are you doing,” the passerby asks the third worker. “I’m not just digging rocks,” he says, “I’m building a cathedral.”   

Having a sense of purpose gives everyone – including you, the business owner – more motivation to work harder and do better.  

Small business owner, I know you’re busy. You’ve got more on your “to do” list than you’ll ever accomplish. But if you want to reach millennials – as customers or employees – and if you want to stay engaged and motivated in your own business, be sure to stay in touch with the larger purposes of your company. You’re not just cutting hair, or selling books, or making products, and you’re not just creating jobs (which is fantastic!), you’re committed to meeting needs of our society and planet.

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