All it Takes Is a Spark

I recently attended the New York benefit for our pro bono partner, Room to Read, an organization that believes world change starts with educated children. At the event they honored David M. Solomon of Goldman Sachs and Sean “Diddy” Combs for their contributions. It got me thinking about the difference an individual can make. A catalyst or “Spark” – famous or not – brings their passion for a cause to others, which ignites actions and campaigns that make a significant difference in the world.

Then today, an email hit my inbox listing all of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities the agency has going on in June. It was such an impressive list that I stopped what I was doing and took time to reflect on what was driving all the activity.

I realized it all starts with having a CSR program that is employee-generated, employee-led and encourages employee involvement. Ketchum is filled with colleagues from all over the world who have introduced causes and organizations to the agency – both big and small – and through their contagious enthusiasm and leadership, inspired greater engagement throughout their office and across the network. From simply brightening an elderly neighbor’s day to mobilizing the entire agency to build libraries and send young women across Africa and Asia to school, these individuals who act as a catalyst or a “Spark” bring their passion for a cause to others, and ignite actions and campaigns that are making a significant difference in the world.

For example, there’s a London-based Spark who inspired colleagues to “adopt” a neighboring daycare center for the elderly. A Korean-based Spark who convinced the entire office to shutter the business for a day to volunteer for the Seoul National School for the Blind. A New York-based Spark who motivated others to purchase much-needed school supplies for a South Bronx school district. Sparks from Chicago, New York and San Francisco each started what became a tradition of personalized localized silent auctions – everything from taking a pie-in-the-face to providing magic lessons and dog sitting – all to raise money to our annual fundraiser. And a committee of Sparks from throughout the agency that kicked off our original involvement with Room to Read. For these, and many other activities, Ketchum just won a SABRE for PR Agency Citizenship.

But back to the email. When it comes down to it, any CSR program is only as successful as the employees who embrace it. In a lot of ways CSR has evolved in a similar fashion to internal communication, which is no longer a series of one-way messages from leaders to employees, but rather a two-way conversation. Employee communications depends on employees actively participating in the dialogue and often leading it. For a CSR initiative to truly succeed it needs both leadership support and passionate colleagues from throughout the organization to make it come alive. In addition, both CSR and employee communications have to inspire others to action to be successful. They both at times require different voices for a message to be heard. And they both need to have local versus global components to reach everyone.

Perhaps those are the keys to a successful CSR program – individuals tapping into their singular and collective passion to touch the lives of other people inside and outside an organization. As more colleagues become Sparks, and as Sparks energize more and more colleagues, our CSR efforts will only continue to grow and have an even greater impact in communities across the globe. And what better measure of success could there be.