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With all the right intentions, hordes of companies—large and small, franchised and wholly owned, domestic and international—have accepted the calling to be good corporate citizens. They are diligently implementing corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs that address sustainability, philanthropy, community involvement, and other goodwill requirements.

According to a recent IBM study, 1,130 CEOs said they plan to increase their corporate citizenship spending by 25%, on average. CSR, then, is still nascent; companies are searching for the basic answers to how much is enough and what really makes a difference to society, for the brand, and to the stakeholders.

Many companies make serious but avoidable mistakes that can overshadow well-intentioned CSR investments. The errors result in damage to the brand and to the "responsible" person's career.

Here are some of the top causes of such mistakes.

1. Misalignment of the cause with the business

A company in the fast-food business probably has no real ability to fix the US educational system. A clothing retailer probably can't solve world hunger. Sure, corporate foundations can give money to other organizations such as nonprofits or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have expertise in those areas. However, most likely, the company would be better served if the selected cause leveraged the skills, connections, and resources within the company.

FedEx, for example, donates its transportation services to support emergency situations such as disaster relief and organ transplants. Minneapolis-based Cargill, a large commercial supplier of food ingredients and food-related products and services, actively supports the UN World Food Programme. St. Louis-based Build-A-Bear Workshop uses its products to bring joy to disadvantaged or ill children, and Hewlett Packard donates computers to underserved classrooms.

While simultaneously serving the sales and marketing messages, those causes reflect the business competency, and, as such, the programs make sense to investors, employees, and all partners involved. The unifying and memorable theme helps rally the company's available resources, which deliver something meaningful and have a real impact.

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Alyssa Dver, a former CMO for public and private companies, now runs Mint Green Marketing (www.mintgreenmktg.com), which helps improve the effectiveness of corporate-responsibility and marketing investments.