Community relations

Why it’s smart to connect with your community

Keeping tabs on industry happenings, the competition and your target markets is key to survival and growth. But watching those items and ignoring the community just outside your front door is like checking for vital signs without taking a pulse.

Community relations efforts typically can’t be directly linked to bottom-line results, but don’t discount the intangible connections and halo effect achieved by supporting your community. What’s good for your community is also good for your business.

There are many reasons why being involved with your community makes sound business sense. 

Our society’s most celebrated companies, the ones that aspiring entrepreneurs emulate, have sound business models and strong management as their foundations. Those companies also support their communities with gifts of money and time and treat their employees and customers with respect and care.

On the most fundamental level, being involved in your community builds goodwill. Mutual understanding and respect go a long way toward establishing a healthy environment conducive to your organization’s success.

Demonstrating commitment to your community resonates with other businesses and citizens who share your values. Remember, you never know where your next big customer might come from.

Understanding your community and its needs as well as what members of your community have to offer can influence the direction of your business. Identifying customer needs is much easier to do when you’re out interacting.

The information that you gather while working in your communities will inform your product and service development.  It will help you identify where your organization’s value lies and help you save valuable resources by learning what products or services your customers do not want or need.

You can improve productivity and effectiveness and even learn ways to reduce costs through your interactions with your community.

Your community’s development and changes impact your business and can make or break the economic health of your area. You’ve invested in your community by establishing your business operations there. As a business owner, that commitment is just the beginning of your relationship.

Changes, both positive and negative, can substantially affect your business. Your business perspective is vital to political and community groups that create and influence legislation. You can help maintain an environment where free enterprise is able to flourish.

Many prospective employees look at potential employers’ community involvement as a part of their evaluation of the organization. They want to understand the mission and whether it would be a good fit for their working style, career development and personal values.

Job candidates who work hard to find career opportunities that align with their personal values become committed employees. They become champions of your organization’s mission, products and services. That’s the kind of employee every business wants.

Investors are also looking beyond financial results when evaluating companies. Many are drawn to companies that are both profitable and conduct business in accordance with principles of social responsibility. That’s why a broad range of socially responsible mutual funds have seen great success.

Above all else, being involved in your community is the right thing to do. When you look back on your life’s work, what do you want to be known for? You’ll sleep better knowing you’ve helped someone besides yourself.

How to get started

Starting a community relations program is a project that starts with looking inward, to your organization’s core values, and then outward.

Develop and follow a social responsibility mission for your organization to serve as a compass. For example, our bank’s mission focuses on working together to revitalize urban communities.

Your mission can be broad, focus on specific constituencies, or be issue-focused. Make it workable for your organization. A sustainable mission is one that grows and flexes with your business.

As word travels that your organization is becoming more active in the community, you might expect to be inundated with interesting opportunities to get involved. When evaluating opportunities, use your mission as a compass to guide your decision-making.

You will need to ask yourself: Does the cause align with our established mission? What value can we bring to this cause? Can we identify people and resources to support our commitment?

Establish a plan for allocating time and resources. Set a budget with the number of hours the organization can commit for the year and get employees to track the amount of time they spend.

Identify and get active in community groups that impact your community or your business. Talk to community leaders, not-for-profits, other business people and citizens to identify community needs and opportunities. By getting involved, you will be informed of changes affecting your community and able to help make them positive ones.

Encourage employees to get involved in the community as part of their work responsibilities. Explore instituting a volunteer hours program where employees can do community work on company time. Put employees from varied work functions on your community relations committee and make it an honor. Develop a community commitment recognition awards program for employees.

Every year, take stock of your efforts.  What went well? What went wrong? Were relationships forged? Did we see results from our efforts? Did new business result? What could we do differently? Keep building on it.

[contact] Steve Erdall is president and CEO of Western Bank in St. Paul, an independent community bank that is 90 years old: 651.290.8100; customerservice@western-bank.com; www.western-bank.com

Steve Erdall

Western Bank