Forget about your cause awareness calendar. It's time to get real about corporate social impact programming as we head into 2023. Let's think long and hard about what really drives social change and how leveraging a cause calendar may impede your company's social impact work.
What is a cause awareness calendar and why are they problematic?
Cause awareness calendars are not new they've been around for decades, and that makes sense. It's a calendar that highlights and promotes awareness of various causes or issues throughout the year. These causes may be related to health, social justice, environmental protection, animal welfare, or other topics of concern (i.e., Earth Day, Memorial Day). Cause awareness calendars often list specific dates on which events or campaigns are held to raise awareness about a particular cause, and may include information about how individuals can get involved or support the cause. Some cause awareness calendars are focused on a specific cause, while others may cover a range of issues.
But far too often they're used as a way for people to pay minute lip service to causes they care about only during the days they're reflected on a calendar. I'll use myself as an example, I'm a veteran of the United States Navy, and that'll be a part of who I am for the remainder of my life. I also struggle with things and face challenges that are sometimes unique to only those who served in the Armed Forces. For me this is daily, it's a part of the sacrifice I made during my military service. Others I know who also served are in a similar boat. Yet, it only seems that it's on Veterans Day that there's an acknowledgment of that. Everyone posts on social media acknowledging veterans, their hardships and sacrifices, some of the issues we face with Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), job related injury, illness as a result of toxic burn pit exposure, suicide, and the list goes on. Everyone chooses a Veteran Service Organization (VSO) to volunteer with. But, after Veterans Day all I may hear are the crickets.
And thus lies the problem. Cause awareness calendars are too often used in a way that promotes and values vanity projects, creating "one and done" episodic interactions with the cause instead of allowing people to dig deep and get involved with the cause throughout the year. You might see this with vanity volunteer events, social posts, public-facing goals being shared, or other actions that in some ways can seem very performative. As such, cause awareness calendars may only inch us closer and closer to a world in which we just pay token respect to heavy-hitting topics without really making any kind of structural change or commitment. It quickly becomes surface-level social media fodder, rather than meaningful action.
How can you tell if you're too reliant on a cause awareness calendar?
Okay, look, I've used them too and know many others in the corporate social responsibility CSR profession that do as well. But there's a real balance in how these things should be used, and I generally tell people to use them sparingly and thoughtfully. But, how do you actually know if your company or CSR team is too reliant on a cause awareness calendar to inform your social efforts and impact?
Is it when you start confusing the various causes associated with different days, or when you find yourself unable to come up with meaningful content for those days that are not related to an existing calendar event? It might even be something more subtle, such as the lack of creativity associated with simply repeating content or community service activations year after year... don't believe me? I've seen this first hand and have far too many examples of where this is done repeatedly.
While having an awareness calendar can provide helpful guidance for certain campaigns or initiatives, it's my opinion that relying on it too heavily can limit innovation and creative problem-solving. Ultimately, to more successfully support community-based organizations whose mission is focused on these causes, it requires the ability to balance sticking to some core practices while also having the flexibility to develop ideas that are more custom-built and tailored to their needs outside of these cause awareness dates.
Alternative ways to drive your social impact programming
A year-round approach to driving social impact programming is essential for truly making a difference. Instead of relying solely on a cause awareness calendar, organizations should explore partnerships and needs-based programming with purposeful, thoughtful, and well-planned year-round initiatives in collaboration with the community served. Crafting year-round initiatives requires research and insight into what works best, yet it is the surest way to lasting change and effective use of limited time and resources. You might even find that the true needs of those you're serving run counter to the dates reflected on a cause awareness calendar.
I understand this is important, especially If you're managing or leading a CSR program or running a business that plans and executes social impact programing, donates to charity, or engages in any other kind of socially conscious activity. However, you must put proper thought into each cause: are you properly informed about the organization you intend to support? Are their stated goals congruent with your philosophy? Sometimes how we expect to support a community isn't the way they need to be supported, so we must recognize that and not let our desire and expectation to serve outweigh their needs.
When done properly, being mindful of where your CSR team or company allocates its financial resources can truly exemplify both social responsibility and excellent leadership qualities. Don't just be a passive participant - invest and serve thoughtfully and strike a balance between improving society while speaking up about these issues beyond the dates reflected on a calendar.
Go beyond the cause calendar and create more meaningful programs that make a lasting difference
As we look back at our accomplishments of 2022 recognize that we have a compelling opportunity before us to create more meaningful social impact programs that can make a lasting difference. Rather than simply treat the symptoms of major problems by creating episodic programming on dates that align with our fancy cause awareness calendars, why not look for solutions that get to the heart of the matter? It's up to us to reframe our engagement with society so that we are taking a preventative approach and working toward systemic change. It's time to shake things up, push boundaries, and start conversations about change from within ourselves and between each other - to reach a more positive future for all.
There's no doubt that social impact is important to the success of businesses today. But if you're using a cause awareness calendar as a tool that drives decision-making it's time to stop. Ditch the calendar, forge stronger partnerships based on their needs and create year-round programs that go deeper than an inch, are performed more than just episodically and go beyond performative actions. Trust me when I say your customers, employees, and community will thank you for it in the long run.
If you're in the Washington D.C. area, and want to hear more about creating impact with integrity, then join me for an in-person fireside chat about how companies can more purposefully create social impact programming. Alternatively, I encourage you to send me a note and we can talk shop some other time and through other means. In any instance don't be a stranger.