Are you responsible?

Mar 05, 2018

Social responsibility can be one of the biggest and most powerful marketing and recruiting tools at your disposal, but be careful.

How much should your firm be concerned with social responsibility? And are charitable donations just a marketing technique or something else entirely?

The holidays are a popular time for giving, community service, and charitable donations.

Zweig Group donates to various causes throughout the year, both need-based in response to natural disasters, and to larger organizations such as the American Cancer Society. For our holiday donation this year, we decided to donate to the Humane Society of the Ozarks. I was surprised to receive a negative response from one of our clients: “With all of the HUMAN suffering in the world, you chose to be politically correct and donate to the Humane Society?!”

Should your firm be judged by which organizations it chooses to donate to? What about who they work for?

Corporate social responsibility urges organizations to consider their own actions in relation to the interests of society. Socially responsible organizations balance profit-making activities with activities that benefit the larger community.

Millennials have brought this issue to the forefront. A recent Forbes article states that millennials are willing to spend more on a product from a sustainable brand, and they “expect modern brands to be open and communicative about how they operate in the world and to seek incremental and positive social change.”

The article says millennials are looking for four major qualities in socially responsible companies:

  1. They want companies to be actively invested in the betterment of society and the solution of social problems.
  2. They want companies that prioritize “making an impact” on the world around them.
  3. They want companies to be open and honest about their efforts – and to be public about their pro-social initiatives.
  4. They want companies to involve their customers in their good works. They want an opportunity to give back – whether it’s with a gift of their time or their money.

For firms in the AEC industry, the question of social responsibility can be especially tough. Should your firm’s role in development indicate a future responsibility for the use or potential use of infrastructure or a structure?

I’ve worked with a number of firms lately that have had to contemplate difficult questions such as: Is it responsible for your firm to work on the design of a marijuana grow-house? The U.S. border wall? An adult entertainment establishment? The corporate headquarters for a company known to produce chemicals that harm the environment? The manufacturing plant for such chemicals? In this situation, does your firm’s role in the project change the level of responsibility? Is the project architect more “responsible” for a building’s use than the engineers who design utility lines bringing power and resources? What about the civil engineer who designs the roads that will lead to a structure?

The answers to these questions are not the same for every firm, but one thing is for certain, your employees and clients will judge you for your actions (or non-action).

Zweig Group’s 2017 Marketing Survey of Architecture, Engineering, Planning & Environmental Consulting Firms found that of the average 7.8 percent of net-service revenue spent on marketing overall, firms spend 3 percent of that on charitable donations.

Social responsibility can be one of the biggest and most powerful marketing and recruiting tools at your disposal, but a high level of sensitivity to these issues or a specific moral or ethical stance can also limit your firm’s options and revenue. It’s important to think about these issues with your entire team and develop a consistent response based on your firm’s mission and vision.

Christina Zweig Niehues is Zweig Group’s director of marketing. Contact her at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.