It's a global trend: Consumers want to buy from, employees want to work for, and other businesses want supplies from, socially responsible enterprises.

"Privately held businesses are adopting corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies not just to save the planet but because they are having to in order to survive and prosper," according to the Grant Thornton International Business Report, which is based on a survey of more than 7,400 companies around the world.

The reasons listed for adopting CSR policies? Recruitment and retention of employees, and cost-management concerns. The conclusion: "Controlling costs is not only good for business but also good for business ethics."

Small-business owners can use the CSR trend to improve their own businesses and stand out from competitors by taking the following steps.

1. Partner with a cause

No matter where you're located, your community has a cause: a free clinic, a Little League team, a coat drive for the homeless, a historic-restoration project. Small businesses can contribute to those causes by such things as offering raffle prizes, providing in-kind services at a fund-raiser, or serving as a drop-off point for that coat drive.

The smaller you are, the more important such partnerships can be: You get high visibility; good vibes; and, depending on what you do, new walk-in traffic.

Just do your research first. Make sure the cause is one that matters to your target customers, and inform them about how you are helping. Make sure your partner puts your name in its newsletter and on event programs. Put up posters by your cash register and in your window.

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Geri Stengel is founder of Ventureneer (, an online education and peer-support service that provides nonprofit and small-business advice via blogs, free e-books, virtual classes, and Web events.