Monday, December 19, 2016

Have a Socially Responsible Holiday 2016!

From Scrooge to Socially responsible shopper!

Thanks for receiving the Progress Strategies+ 2016 socially responsible companies list to consider during your shopping!  Like me, you may have just started shopping.  Good luck!  As with last year, I give you the gift of sharing some companies that I support who are examples of matching the bottom-line with socially responsible practices. 

Before I share, allow me to give a confession:  I finally got into the commercial Christmas spirit!  Last week I stood in the middle of the mall for 15 minutes reading the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) annual reports of two major retailers to double-check their improvements in environmental stewardship, community giving and wage and benefits for workers----before making my few purchases.

Recently as I was downloading some iTunes songs from Apple, I looked into the company’s CSR practices.  I was already impressed by CEO Tim Cook’s step to hire Lisa Jackson---former head of the Environmental Protection Agency---to run point on environmental stewardship and social initiatives. 

Apple has been leading in green energy.  All most all of their U.S. production and 87% of their Global production is powered by renewable energy.  They are so focused on this area that when they were challenged by some with the presumption that such focus was not good for business, Mr. Cook responded by stating “we do a lot of things for reasons besides the profit motive” while recommending that any stock holders who thought differently should sell. 

Wow!  While there is still room for improvement, I proceeded to get my songs from Chance The Rapper and Elaine Elias. Keep it coming Apple.

CSR is a great glue driving free market relationships

I am proudly in the number of socially responsible conscious consumers who find it very important to spend or invest in companies that have values, policies and business practices that benefit society----from environmental and charitable giving to ethical labor practices.  Such CSR demonstrations impact not only how we value the merging of profit and good behavior, but those activities also define our ethical free market interactions between businesses, customers, consumers, entrepreneurs and employees. 

For instance, when I buy North Face (I need new gloves---anyone!) outdoor products for quality and durability, I know that my dollars are being used to increase the company’s improvements of the people aspect of the Triple Bottom Line.  North Face has been focused on reducing their water footprint or usage and other ecological activities to meet environmental standards.  The support by all North Face’s customers keeps the company accountable to these goals.

They are also making improvements in their global compliance areas such as fair wages and benefits, women’s rights, anti-discrimination and respecting the right to free association and collective bargaining in the workplace.  Plus, I feel a bit warmer (emotionally) knowing that the company respects ethical treatment of animals as much as people.  Evidence of this is that one of my Down filled vests meets the Responsible Down Standard to prevent practices of live-feather plucking and other humane treatment of animals.

I shared this important factor with a local company recently.  As I discussed the CSR and inclusion services that Progress Strategies+ could provide them, “all businesses must remain attentive to the many potential customers that are driven by the CSR practices.  Within every demographic are untapped and sometimes unrealized customers who want companies to do more than just make money.”

Take the Reputation Institute’s survey, conducted for Forbes Magazine, to study 47,000 consumers that ranked the reputations of multinational companies.  The study researched how consumers prioritized the importance of corporate reputation factors such as CSR and corporate citizenship---and how those factors drive their perceptions of a company’s products, goods and services.

The study found that 42% of how people feel about a company is based on the firm’s CSR practices.  Those consumers were asked to give evaluations on questions such as “Is the company a good corporate citizen---supporting good causes and the environment?  Is it a responsibility-run company---behaving ethically and being transparent? Is it an appealing place to work?”  The perceptions are correlated with consumer support.  Companies such as Microsoft, Google, Walt Disney and others in the Forbes The 10 Companies With The Best CSR Reputations also do pretty well with profitability.

The Progress Strategies+ List of Companies---for your list, too?

These following companies are not on that list because they are not multinationals.  However, I wanted to share a list of major companies that I support just in case you have not finished your holiday shopping.  I will do a local business version in the future.  For now, based on my personal values and Progress Strategies+ CSR Client Best Practices here are some companies to consider on your growing or shrinking shopping list:  

1.    SoapBoxSoaps:  This is a really nice company with good soaps----along with a good price ($3.99) to match their mission.  With each purchase of a bar of soap, a bar is given to programs assisting individuals and communities nationally and internationally that lack access, safe products, materials and resources for hygiene.  The company provides other supports to causes that address health and wellness.

There is a code on each soap wrapper that you can enter in the company’s website, allowing you to locate and learn about the program or initiative your donation helped.  For example, a purchasing-to-donation may support a program helping Ebola survivors receive psychological counseling support and education assistance in soap-making and small business skills.  Purchases also provide contributions of critical personal hygiene products to food banks given that federal food assistance funds cannot be used for non-food items.  Good soap supports good causes that the company is in partnership with from Miami to India.

2.    Patagonia:  Like North Face, this is a company that is easy to support.  They are solid with high quality and resilient outdoor gear for the suburbanite or skilled mountain climber.  Keep them on your shopping list.  I was fine coming into the cold from the yard one day with my vest (I love vests).  I got warmer and happier sitting down and watching NBC Nightly News story featuring another great aspect of Patagonia’s social responsibility. 

The evening feature highlighted the company’s 30-year initiative providing on-site child care for employees. Among the benefits of the program is allowing employees to stay connected with their children at times throughout the workday.  Another benefit is that it has led to 100 percent of women choosing to return to the workplace after childbirth.  Just when I thought that was enough, the news segment featured an employee who works for Patagonia-----spending time with his visiting mom who once worked there and had him at the day care center! 

3.    FairLife:  Okay, you are probably not going to buy someone milk for Christmas.  What about when you have your holiday party?  I picked up FairLife at a local store and appreciated the pledge and business model of producing good milk (chocolate has been my favorite) from cows who are well-fed and treated in a humane fashion of stress-free conditions within a closed processing system.  That system is one in which the production of crops, feeding of animals, processing, bottling and sell of the product can be traced back to the place it was made. 

Sometimes ethical standards get mixed up and misplaced among different dairies and places.  Such values are not surprising given that the founder was a former cow veterinarian.  A good milk next to Santa’s cookies.

4.    North Face:  See the above.  And if you have an extra Down filled vest in red or blue please let me know!

5.    Apple:  See the above.  Plus, I am keeping them on my list as Mr. Cook continues to help improve technology at public schools through a $100 million commitment to ConnectED and donations of iPads and Macs to schools---many of them with disadvantaged students of Hispanic, Black, Native American, Alaskan Native or Asian heritage.

I could name more but simply wanted to share good corporate citizens that I have regularly or recently supported.  If you have also engaged in conscious consumer shopping or are new to it, I truly thank you.  We need all of us in the market supporting companies as they connect money with mission to make positive social and environmental change.

A dip in the merriment for mission?

There is more to be done with our decisions and dollars!  According to Good.Must.Grow and the fourth annual Conscious Consumer Spending Index, there has been a small slip in the two-year climb in social responsibility among consumers.

Good.Must.Grow, a socially responsible marketing firm, polled thousands of Americans this year regarding their conscious consumer spending practices.  This year’s study found that 31 percent of Americans are planning to spend more with companies who are socially responsible, slightly down from 32 percent from last year.   

Additionally, 60 percent confirmed the importance of buying from socially responsible companies, down from 64 percent in 2015.  In addition, 64 percent reported making purchases from socially responsible companies, compared to 65 percent in 2015.  Some factors contributing to the small decrease could be prices of those products.  That is very understandable and I remain appreciative that while the practice of such spending dipped, the priority of it among people did not.

The spirit of socially responsible spending decisions in support of socially responsible companies cannot weaken.  Our communities, causes and ability to have companies help us meet social challenges depend on this spirit just as much as profit, investments and prosperity depend on it. 

It is in that spirit that I wish you a great holiday season full of progress for you, your work and our planet.  Happy shopping.

Eric K. Foster is principal of Progress Strategies+, a project management firm serving corporations, businesses and organizations.  Progress Strategies+ also specializes in four social responsibility client project areas----Diversity & Inclusion, Corporate Social Responsibility, Public Policy and Advocacy and Grant Management.  Eric is a fan of outdoor vests.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Show Me My Money: Company helping vulnerable employees get paid---not preyed upon

A father’s reluctance and reliance on a predator

The father of four started his shift in deep but nervous prayer that the paycheck coming in three weeks could miraculously arrive today.  He needed money now and paying for the schooling of two children was the least of his problems.  The heat and angst growing in his chest came from the fact that two emergency situations of child dental care and car repair demanded that he promptly needed at least some of the proceeds of his hard work.

Immediately after his shift ended came confirmation that he would have to make a decision that he promised his wife he would never make again:  He would get another Payday Loan.  At least this time he would not pawn any treasured property for quick cash.  His time-tested car sputtered to one of eight payday lenders in his neighborhood so he could acquire the advance loan of $400 for three weeks at an interest rate of 250%.

Breaking the promise to his wife was necessary to take care of the emergencies.  Still, he grew more despondent knowing that he would sacrifice much more later in order to receive the money now.  With a shrinking savings, no bank account, monthly bills and other pressures, the payday loan repayment on the $400 dollars would put him in another position of paying it back for a year. The outlandish interest rate would ultimately put him in an even deeper and longer financial hole since he would likely have to get additional loans to ‘float himself between checks.’ 

FlexWage to the rescue? 

If this father-----an amalgamation of a few real-life stories----worked for an employer using FlexWage, he could face a financial reality of economic security that may help him avoid the payday loan debt trap.  He could represent a clean break from the nearly 60 percent of Americans who are not prepared to cover an unexpected expense, and the 50 percent who do not have access to $400 to cover emergency expenses.

I learned about FlexWage through my allies at the Stanford Social Innovation Review and CitiFoundation of CitiGroup who shared the “Hidden Financial Lives of America’s Poor and Middle Class” with me and other family economic security leaders in business and non-profits.   We received more than an overview of the new financial pressures facing families.  We have been introduced to how a socially responsible market is creating innovative products to help unbanked workers----especially the 68 million Americans who use alternative financial services. 

How it works for the worker

Here is FlexWage at a glance:

·         It is not a lender to the disinvested individual.  However, it is a good approach and product to provide workers with an early pay alternative to check advance and payday lenders. 

·         FlexWage analyzes data on employees' pay rates and hours that they have worked via their interface with an employer’s payroll and time management systems to determine that worker’s current--but unpaid-- paycheck prior to the official pay period. 

·         After that determination FlexWage accesses their client employer’s payroll accrual funds and puts them on the FlexWage Payroll Card to provide the worker with the early disbursement money.  Again, this is money from the hours that the employee has already worked.  Instead of a worker needing to rely on high-cost lending alternatives, this process helps them avoid debt while providing them low cost access to cash. 

·         The system can be arranged so that employees may also request advances for limited times during a pay period or year, and only up to a specific percent of wages (which is based on the permission and discretion of the employer).  This is important because many workers do not have direct deposit.

·         It is a product that brings social consciousness to capitalism.  So, of course it is not free----but it is not predatory.  They make money through a structure similar to our visits to some ATMs where the collection fee is $3-$5 for any employee accessing their paycheck money early.  A far cry from 300% (or more) interest rates and other fees from the bad actors in the alternative lending industry.

Potential to eliminate the Payday Lenders?

From supermarkets and schools to governments and grocery stores, many U.S. employees live paycheck to paycheck.  They are poor and/or middle class who have no bank accounts.  Such unbanked or underbanked circumstances create more volatility when the aforementioned financial emergencies arise. Therefore, they often find perceived security in getting much needed cash through spending a large part of earned income on high interests at check cashing stores, money order centers or payday lenders.  

As principal and president of a socially responsible oriented company who is also entering into the new work of Community Development Finance Institutions to provide alternative lending to vulnerable communities, I like what I am learning about FlexWage.  More Free-market approaches to our nation’s challenges of financial security are needed every day. 

A group called Neighborhood Trust agrees and they are partnering with FlexWage in offering new solutions to the cash flow challenge facing U.S. workers.  The partnership is identifying 10 employers who are interested in testing the system.  Companies with at least 250 employees (who are hourly or moderate income workers) can be eligible to take advantage of this partnership that can help give employees more control over their pay. For a limited time the partners are offering this service at no cost to the employer.

Such a partnership or contractual services with FlexWage may undoubtedly be appropriate for established medium-to-large businesses and companies who do not face cash flow problems themselves or are beyond startup.  In addition, small businesses who have the same stability so as to not experience their own disruptions from early/advance payments may also be great candidates. 

I hope that many companies who fit the bill of doing well and doing good will explore such a product.  If companies with 250 or more employees who have workers facing economic insecurity examine this product, they can possibly help enhance worker productivity, health, financial security and join taking on the market of payday lenders who produce close to $8 billion in fees off the backs of workers who have no other financial option.  

Eric K. Foster is principal and president of Progress Strategies+, a project management firm serving corporations, businesses and organizations.  Progress Strategies+ also specializes in four social responsibility client project areas----Diversity & Inclusion, Corporate Social Responsibility, Public Policy and Advocacy and Grant Writing/Grant Management.  As a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Fellow, Eric is completing Community Finance Development Institution (CDFI) learning and management for his new work in development and administration of a CDFI to provide access to capital to excluded entrepreneurs.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Local First: Introductory steps towards inclusion and equity

Even during a recent mild national jobs report, I enjoyed the month of May with local businesses and National Small Business Week!

In my hometown I was thrilled to stop by a successful local store, Gazelle Sports which fulfills their goals of profit and sustainability as a Certified B Corporation.  It is also my destination for North Face gear (a great leader in corporate social responsibility), and where I reconnected with a college classmate.  I purchased great outdoor apparel from Patagonia---another leader in creating products responsibly.  Just as much as my former classmate was talking about business, he was equally energetic about the Gazelle Sports Foundation that promotes healthy lifestyle and fitness in the community.

A few days later in-between project work I stopped for a late lunch at Tacos El Cunado, a great eatery that sources many ingredients from Michigan.  Their efficiency in delivering my probably too-specific order was only rivaled by their empathy in being concerned about why I was eating so late!

In both cases, I received personal care and excellent service from local businesses who value the well-being of customers and communities.  The two businesses are members of Local First---an organizational leader in the Midwest focused on supporting and advocating for its 800-plus locally owned businesses.  Progress Strategies+ has served Local First as a Diversity & Inclusion Project Area client because they are equally committed to being an organization of choice for social and economic inclusion.

Local and Small can meet big challenges of social and economic inequity

I appreciate corporations who uphold inclusion through diversity managers, supplier diversity initiatives and many other programs.  I have even more appreciation for small local businesses whose size and profit margins do not allow them to have such programs.  However, some of them are working to do better through sheer force of will, market motivators and passion for their communities to do what they can to promote inclusion and social/racial equity. 

Local First is taking the challenging journey to do so as they realize these points that can uplift or upset their goal of a positive local economy:

·         A 2013 study in the Harvard Business Review found that businesses with multiple dimensions of diversity were notably more innovative and enjoyed market growth than less diverse businesses.

·         A local economy cannot fully thrive if culturally and ethnically diverse communities are not owning local businesses.

·         An ally organization must believe in diversity more than for membership.  Such an organization is aware of the conditions of exclusion that certain communities face, and it advocates for solutions. 

·         To be an organization of choice for all people means that the organization must assess and address its own internal and external roadblocks to promoting cultural competence, inclusion and equity. 

Local First.  First steps toward equity.

Progress Strategies+ appreciated Local First’s commitment to our five-month cultural competency, inclusion and equity training and partial policy development.  Our Local First E3 (Equity, Environments of Inclusion and Engagement) with Diverse Communities provided them instructional facilitation sessions and creation of introductory policies to advance inclusion and promote inclusive strategies for the authentic engagement with culturally diverse communities. 

Progress Strategies+ remains excited of Local First’s immediate embrace and use of inclusion tools and first steps such as:

·         100% staff completion of rigorous cultural competency, inclusion and equity training and acquisition of new skills to connect mission with internal and external inclusion strategies.

·         501(c)3 board and education foundation board completion of the same.

·         Adoption of recommended policies promoting workplace equity and religious accommodation.

·         New ethnically and culturally diverse board members immediately joining existing board leaders and staff as a dedicated work-group implementing key inclusion and equity action items in areas from cultural competency sustainability to communications and equity accountability.

Small and Local:  The first gateways to equity.

Again, there are many reasons not to be surprised by such an embrace from an organization.  It is my belief that one reason is the knowledge that more local business owners see themselves as potentially being the inclusion ally of first resort because they are connected to (and dependent on) a local economy that is fair and functioning for all.

It is the local neighborhood store that can instantly see the moral and economic negative effects from a city that is exclusive to many.  It is that local store owner who can be the first business before the large corporation to have Spanish-speaking employees adapt to a growing Hispanic population not via marketing data but because they see the diverse communities in their parks and pews.  Years before the mega-supermarket receives the accounting position job application from the African-American college graduate, the local store in her neighborhood may have given her the first high-school job as a cashier.    

Local business can be the most natural ally for inclusion because when a local owner is wondering if they are effectively promoting workplace and economic equity, they do not need a national scorecard or research brief.  They only need to connect their heart and head to look down the street to be aware of the talented entrepreneur of color who can be their vendor-of-choice as opposed to being economically detached from community. 

More impactful is the fact that local business does not need to take a long process of hiring that person in order to promote inclusion.  They can instantly respond with agility, awareness and action because they are local.  When it comes to inclusion and equity, local business and Local First can be the leader of first resort.  It is good to see them taking such a journey.

Eric K. Foster is principal and president of Progress Strategies+, a project management firm serving corporations, businesses and organizations.  Progress Strategies+ also specializes in four social responsibility client project areas----Diversity & Inclusion, Corporate Social Responsibility, Public Policy and Advocacy and Grant Writing/Grant Management.  His first jobs in high school were with local stores----Kingma's Produce (where he never ate oranges, grapes or apples at work) and Reynolds & Sons Sporting Goods (where he learned sales by selling every gym shoe and hat possible)

Friday, April 8, 2016

Impact Spotlight: Bing Goei: A Hometown Hero for Leading, Helping & Healing

In the middle of daily readings on national business leaders and historic social change agents, I often need to remember the great local heroes surrounding me.  Bing Goei is one of those hometown heroes that I admire for his work and the tangible benefits it produces for people.

It is fitting that Bing is being honored by the American Red Cross of West Michigan.  He exemplifies the values of the American Red Cross such as relief, healing, compassionate care and partnerships that helps communities.  As the founder and president of a project management firm adhering to social responsibility, I count Bing as a model of how to advance those values in the context of business. 

For the community, customers, citizens and civic leaders Bing is the CEO of Eastern Floral Company, Director of the Michigan Office for New Americans, founder of the International Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence (ICEE), Board of Director for the West Michigan Asian American Association and former President of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.  Bing represents those great elements to me as well as friend, former client, provider of my customer needs and inclusion ally.  Here is how I want to join the American Red Cross of West Michigan in saluting Bing and sharing my appreciation of his passion for being a hero in providing:

Relief:  Some in our community often encounter barriers keeping them removed from equal access, power-sharing and resources.  As I witnessed from our time on the Varnum Law Diversity Advisory Council, his business advocacy and other mutual endeavors, I have been emboldened by Bing’s work as a tireless champion in eliminating exclusion.  He has embraced risk and innovation to replace exclusion with social and economic progress for people regardless of their race, ethnicity or gender.

Healing and Compassionate Care:  I salute Bing’s work on creating an environment that welcomes immigrants and the talents they bring to Michigan.  Bing’s ethics and values for how we embrace strangers makes him the perfect public representative of sound immigration policies amid public discourse where solutions and ideas are not often compassionate, solution-oriented or respectful of people. 

On behalf of thousands of people looking to make a better life in the West Michigan region, I wish Bing continued success in his work as Director for the Office for New Americans and head of the ICEE to create the tone, conditions and policies that are compassionate and affirming of new arrivals. 

Partnerships:  Great heroes enter into the battle of change work with humility, commitment and a skill to connect allies together.  Bing is being honored because from attracting young professionals to West Michigan to supporting entrepreneurs via funding opportunities, he forms partnerships between people of all backgrounds.  He is to be saluted because those partnerships have created economic security and empowerment for the most vulnerable.

I salute and honor Bing Goei, our hometown hero.  Furthermore, I will continue to take inspiration from him.

Eric K. Foster is Principal of Progress Strategies+, a project management consultancy. He created Progress Strategies+ to serve organizations, corporations, non-profit groups and other clients in consulting and direct project management in the areas of diversity and inclusion, grant writing and grant project management, public policy and advocacy and corporate social responsibility.  He is enjoying the month of April where people are being celebrated for their hard work of creating financial and social opportunities for communities, citizens and their customers.