During the pandemic, corporations reached out to help small businesses, food banks, and non-profits affected by the crisis (Photo by SDI Productions/iStock by Getty Images)

There are almost countless phrases that have become popularized–and arguably overused–since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic: “We are all in this together.” “In these uncertain times.” “The new normal.” “Now more than ever.”

But when employees at the financial-tech company Fiserv refer to their Covid-19 response as well as their overall sense of corporate social responsibility (CSR), they rely on a classic phrase often attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Do well by doing good,” says Meg Hendricks, Fiserv’s senior director of corporate citizenship and head of military and veteran affairs.

At From Day One’s recent conference on corporate purpose, Hendricks spoke on a panel seeking to answer the question: “Why Should a Company’s Purpose Extend to the Community Around It?” The commitment to “doing well by doing good,” Hendricks said, means not only outlining an effective CSR strategy but committing to ongoing assessment and diversification. Pillars and purpose statements cannot just be ethereal; they must be practical and implemented. When it comes to engaging communities, companies need to remain vigilant.

“We made a point to make sure that when we were evaluating how we were going to engage with [community partners], there needed to be a specific plan, we were assigning a relationship manager, we were making sure that we were both amplifying what they need while also being able to expand our network and touch more folks.”

In Fiserv’s case, one of the company’s goals has been to help small businesses, which have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic. To reach them, Fiserv decentralized its efforts. “We really did partner with our community groups across the country, small-business aggregators, chamber of commerce incubators, and local resource providers. We went from about 50 community partners to over 100,” Hendricks said. All that outreach will be good for Fiserv as well. “By expanding our network, we’re enhancing entrepreneur ecosystems and creating an environment where we can grow and flourish together as a community, continuously auditing and looking at what we’re doing.”

That same commitment to re-evaluation and follow-through has also been informing the efforts of cloud-computing provider Blackbaud, said Melissa Britton, manager of philanthropy and volunteer engagement at the company. She referred to a recent study from the Blackbaud Institute on the state of corporate social impact in 2020, which includes a four-point summary about things corporate leaders should keep in mind when they’re rethinking their sense of purpose and CSR strategy.

First and foremost, Britton said, was: “Listen to your people, involve your people at all levels and in all departments in the conversation around developing CSR strategy. No. 2 would be to do an audit of all the social good efforts that you currently have. Are they strategic? Maybe it’s time to rethink some of those,” Britton said.

Speaking on community impact, top row from left: moderator Steve Koepp of From Day One, Potoula Stavropoulos of Regeneron, and Melissa Britton of Blackbaud. Bottow row from left: Meg Hendricks of Fiserv and Hillary Bochniak of Acccenture (Image by From Day One)

“And the third is, don’t be afraid to change and evolve. That may mean stepping away from some long-standing traditions–and that’s okay. This is the fourth component: Have a very honest conversation about corporate values. What are the values? Do we need to change those, do those need to evolve?”

Following those steps, she said, “really ensures that a company’s CSR strategy will be something that’s owned by everyone within the company, not just the HR department or the marketing department, wherever that CSR effort might be housed.”

That’s where the word “community” in itself becomes multi-faceted. It needs to involve communities outside of the company as well as within. And multi-level involvement and engagement can be key to bolstering efforts and fostering a collaborative, altruistic culture.

Hillary Bochniak, a managing director of HR at Accenture, said the global professional-services firm, which employs more than half a million people worldwide, had “always been an organization that’s been very community-oriented and has provided a lot of support for our employees to pursue their passions in terms of philanthropy and volunteerism.”

Last October, she said, Accenture “launched a new purpose, strategy and brand for ourselves. Our purpose is to deliver on the promise of technology and human ingenuity. Our strategy is pretty simple: It’s to help companies do that in a post-Covid environment. Our purpose is amplified then by our brand, which is ‘Let there be change.’ And that’s the mentality that we take into all of our interactions,” Bochniak said. A recent Accenture study “found that roughly 70% of workers expect that companies will start to behave more responsibly and have a strengthened need for greater responsibility for driving social outcomes.”

“On a corporate level, I think that we’re seeing this heightened overall. And what’s really interesting is that it’s also deeply personal,” Bochniak continued. “One in two workers in our survey agree that ethical, sustainable and moral values being demonstrated by employers is going to become even more important to them after the pandemic passes. So the idea of extending purpose to the community, it’s existential, really, and it’s something that is a mandate.” Demonstrating a positive impact on the community pays another dividend, she said: an increased ability to attract the best talent.

Community engagement can also involve nurturing future generations, said Potoula Stavropoulos, director of social impact at the biotech company Regeneron, which focuses its CSR programs on STEM education, emerging-talent searches and science fairs.

“We were founded about 30 years ago, and still led by our co-founders, who are physician-scientists,” Stavropoulos said. “They founded our company with the vision to use science to improve human life. And that really is the foundation for our corporate purpose: To use science to improve the world, which is where our focus on supporting science and scientific talent stems from.”

To do that, she said, Regeneron incorporates all of the aforementioned strategies: re-evaluating, adapting, and involving employees on a personal, hands-on level. “We thought really hard about, how do we apply an equity lens to our work to even deepen the impact of our investments? And we also acted on our commitment to empower our employees to give to our local communities,” she said.

This involves “giving them the tools and the resources and the voice to act in the ways that they felt would be most meaningful to them,” Stavropoulos said. With the onset of the pandemic, “we all have had to pivot in the last year and find innovative ways to support our employees,” as well as Regeneron’s nonprofit partners and the STEM students it reaches through its programs.

The pandemic, which has affected Black and brown communities disproportionately, prompted the company to deepen its commitment to addressing “those disparities that have long contributed to inequities in their education, systematically and structurally. We believe that the best and brightest minds should be going into science, because it’s through science that we will find the solutions to our world’s most intractable problems,” Stavropoulos said. “We believe scientists are the heroes, and we want to translate that notion in society, where we can elevate and inspire students.”

Sheila Flynn is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for the Associated Press, the Sunday Independent, the Irish Daily Mail and the Irish Times. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.