In today’s rapidly evolving corporate landscape, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has taken center stage as organizations seek to create inclusive and thriving workplaces. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) have become an increasingly significant component of corporate DEI efforts, with around 90% of Fortune 500 companies recognizing their value and actively supporting these employee-led groups. As a result, it comes as no surprise that organizations prioritizing employee well-being and engagement, with the assistance of ERGs, consistently outperform their peers in the market by up to 3% annually.
Having founded and led an ERG in a corporate setting, I’ve experienced first-hand the far-reaching impact these groups can have, playing a pivotal role in advancing diversity and inclusion, boosting employee well-being, connecting members with executive leadership, improving brand reputation, and enhancing employees’ bond to the company’s mission, vision, and values. Moreover, ERGs foster a strong sense of belonging, with studies showing that this leads to a 56% increase in job performance and a 50% reduction in turnover.
Recognizing the transformative power of ERGs within organizations, these affinity groups also can have a considerable impact on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives. For social impact practitioners, who often face resource constraints while striving to meet corporate and community expectations, ERGs present an opportunity to enhance engagement in volunteer giving and service, develop meaningful connections with local community organizations, and build a network of internal advocates and thought partners.
ERGs become even more relevant when we see that a growing percentage of millennial and Gen Z workers are joining ERGs looking to connect with colleagues, promote inclusion, and advance their careers. These demographic groups are more purpose-driven than previous generations, and more likely to leave their current employer for a company that prioritizes social impact as part of its purpose, as indicated by a 2022 Gallup poll. This increasing demand for corporate responsibility from millennials and Gen Z workers, along with the growing prevalence of this demographic in ERG communities, presents an opportunity for companies to further their social impact through clear strategic alignment between their ERG communities and their purpose, vision, and values.
Here are three recommendations on ways to harness your company’s ERG community to take your social impact programs to the next level.
1. Leverage Unique Perspectives + Lived Experience to Inform Key Decisions
Employees are a significant, if not the most significant, stakeholder for any organization, and alignment with employees is critical to an organization’s triple bottom line: people, planet, and prosperity. Organizations with well-defined and communicated purpose and values can align their employees and culture with these principles, fostering a sense of shared drive and commitment. ERGs and their leadership teams – with their diverse perspectives and lived experience – can serve as essential guides, providing valuable insights on how to focus and enhance the company’s culture, and consequently, their social impact initiatives.
Corporate social impact efforts are most often directed toward underserved and underrepresented communities. However, according to the Association of Corporate Citizenship Professionals’ 2022 report on Advancing Equity in the Corporate Social Impact Profession, only 36% of CSR team leaders identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), and 61% of the surveyed teams indicated that less than 25% of their team members identified as BIPOC. The lack of diversity across corporate social impact teams highlights the importance of social impact professionals seeking out diverse perspectives and lived experiences to inform their work, not to mention emphasizing the need for more inclusive hiring practices.
If you haven’t already, consider implementing an internal working group or council of ERG leaders to seek their input on programs, reporting, storytelling, and overall business strategy. Whether you conduct stakeholder interviews, surveys, assemble focus groups, or ask ERG leaders to review your communications materials, collective input of ERGs can ultimately drive positive change within the company, creating a more inclusive, purpose-driven, and socially responsible organization.
2. Build a Team of Internal Advocates
ERGs and their leadership can also play a pivotal role in supporting social impact professionals by cultivating a group of internal advocates and champions to bolster CSR and ESG programs and enhance employee engagement. Speaking from experience, employees in these voluntary roles are eager to stay informed and back initiatives that support causes important to them and their affinity group members. Many employees take ERG leadership roles because they feel a deep sense of connection to the company, are passionate about advancing DEI within the organization, or because they want to build their internal networks and gain more exposure to decision-makers.
As you map out your employee giving and service programs for the year, consider whether one of your company’s ERGs might be interested in partnering to amplify the work. This can be a high-touch partnership, where the ERG members take ownership of the program with guidance from the social impact team, or a low-touch collaboration, where the ERG members support and amplify the work driven by the social impact team. If you have a council or working group of ERG leaders already established, this can be a great channel to keep them informed of upcoming initiatives and events, and to call for them to actively engage their members.
As ERGs spearhead social impact initiatives, they instill a sense of ownership and enthusiasm across the workforce, becoming ambassadors that foster a deeper sense of belonging among their colleagues and igniting their intrinsic motivation to contribute meaningfully. This can also extend beyond CSR and ESG, as employee engagement and belonging can help advance culture building, recruitment, public relations, and other vital business activities.
3. Extend Community Connections Through External Brand Ambassadors
Affinity groups have the power to serve as connectors with community members and local nonprofits, bridging the gap between companies and audience segments they might otherwise miss and paving the way for innovation and creative solutions within corporate social impact. By actively engaging in CSR initiatives and community outreach, ERG members can forge partnerships that address pressing needs and amplify the positive outcomes of shared initiatives.
Depending on their role within the business, ERG leaders can serve as further extensions of the organization and its social impact initiatives by representing the company at conferences, industry-relevant meetings, and local government and community convenings. Immersion in the community leads to a deeper understanding of its unique challenges, prominent community leaders, and most valued programming, enabling companies to tailor their social impact efforts to align better with community needs and values while maintaining an authentic approach to engagement.
ERG leaders can also support the business and its social impact through digital advocacy. Not only do consumers generally trust information shared on social media by employees more than brands as reported by Adweek, but employee advocacy also extends an organization’s visibility to new audiences. Encourage ERG leaders to be active on social media and share important initiatives and outcomes. You might consider creating recommended talking points or best practices for both digital advocacy and in-person community events to align your messaging across all stakeholder groups.
From a programmatic standpoint, consider leveraging your ERG members as community service project leaders to be points of contact for nonprofit partners; start an ERG grant program to enable your ERGs to direct funding to relevant nonprofits that align with their mission; or capitalize on relationships that ERGs have with community organizations to bolster your current programming. This genuine approach helps companies create a lasting and positive impact, all while strengthening their brand reputation as a socially responsible organization.
ERGs are valued thought partners, project leaders, and community ambassadors. They possess the potential to drive powerful social impact, both within and beyond the organization. These groups play a crucial role in advancing external initiatives that benefit underserved populations in local communities, enhancing brand visibility through volunteer activities, and serving as internal advocates to create a vibrant and engaged company culture.
As you reevaluate your current social impact programs or start to plan your giving and service calendar for the next year, use these three tips to help you think strategically about how to leverage your company’s ERG community, and how ERG engagement can help further connect the dots between DEI and corporate responsibility.
Photo courtesy of RDNE Stock project