Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is here to stay. Over the last decade, it’s become an integral part of corporate strategy, and an important way for companies to build their brand, engage employees, and maintain their social license to operate. It’s now so well-ingrained in corporate culture that most companies, independent of size or revenue, either have a CSR program or are devoting time and resources to developing one.
But simply having a CSR program is no longer enough. The increased presence of CSR is paired with increased visibility: your companies’ customers and potential customers can tell the difference between superficial CSR that sounds good and meaningful CSR that is backed by action. This has become even more true with the COVID-19 pandemic: corporations are uniquely positioned to have large scale impact because of their resources and reach and consumers are increasingly demanding that they do so.
So, the question that CSR professionals should now be asking themselves is, “how can I create a program that creates the meaningful, long-term, and sustainable impact that my company wants to deliver to society?” In our work helping some of the world’s most respected brands design, launch, and scale social impact programs, we’ve found that the most successful programs incorporate the following 5 characteristics:
1. An Adaptable Virtual Component
2020 has changed the way we do just about everything, including CSR. We now interact with the world through screens from our homes, and limit our in-person interactions. But even though the world has gone virtual with remarkable speed, virtualizing your CSR program based on what is fastest and easiest can prevent you from thinking about what is truly impactful and transformational for all parties.
A good place to start is undertaking an analysis of your nonprofit partners’ needs in this newly virtual world to figure out what they need most right now, for themselves and for their stakeholders. They may need virtual volunteers, and they may also need your help making up a funding gap or sourcing technology to go virtual themselves. Asking yourself, “Where can we inject resources to help scale the impact of those already doing the hard work at the grassroots level?” can help guide your virtualization efforts to ensure you’re using your company’s assets to multiply impact, rather than driving at vanity metrics like total number of hours volunteered.
Keep perspective and stay flexible, knowing that your CSR program’s “virtual” component may include virtual volunteering now, but it is dependent on your nonprofit partner’s needs and will likely change multiple times over the course of the next year.
2. Scalable, with Room to Improve
The most successful CSR programs keep repeatability and scale in mind from the beginning. Ask yourself questions like:
- how can we build a knowledge base that can be accessed across the company, not just within our specific office?
- What standard training or procedures do we want to use to ensure a consistently high level of quality for every engagement?
When you’re developing programs during a tumultuous time, it’s all too easy to try to solve immediate problems without thinking about long term impact, tracking, and repeatability. CSR programs should focus on longevity and continuous improvement, so make sure you are developing a program that can build on itself. Start small and socialize your ideas with different stakeholders, building in regular touchpoints to revisit progress towards your goals and iterate to create a stronger program every year.
Don’t be afraid to think big – you’ll have to sell the potential future of the program to get buy-in – but make sure you’re rolling out the infrastructure that the program will need to achieve that vision at scale. Take a look at our 5 steps to scale social impact initiatives for more guidance on creating scalable programs.
3. Incorporates Meaningful Impact Measurement
Many CSR programs utilize metrics like numbers of employees volunteering or total annual volunteer hours. While it’s essential to record these measurements, on their own they don’t fully measure your program’s impact. Go beyond these so-called ‘vanity metrics’ to capture more meaningful feedback about the ultimate impact of the program for stakeholders and beneficiaries.
For example, the Microsoft MySkills4Afrika capacity building program sends surveys after each project to the employee volunteer, the organization on the ground receiving their support, as well as the line manager of the employee who volunteered so that impact can continue to be measured even after the project ends. Also consider making your impact measurement even more meaningful by including it in your executive scorecard, like our client, Avanade, committed to last year. With this inclusion, Avanade’s executive leadership is responsible for hitting important milestones and updating the Board of Directors on their initiatives, which also reinforces their program’s scalability.
4. Strategic and Forward-Thinking
As you’re developing your CSR program, or rethinking it in light of COVID, recall your company’s mission, vision, and core business. The companies with the most successful CSR initiatives in 2020 have utilized their core business in some way to help society through the pandemic and recession. But it’s important to note that in non-COVID times, this has also proven true. For example, Microsoft’s MySkills4Afrika program was launched out of the business division overseeing growth in that part of the world, blending market development with long-term capacity building to drive inclusive digital transformation and growth, while developing employee volunteers’ global leadership skills and engagement with Microsoft’s mission. Ultimately, the future of CSR lies in initiatives and programs like this where business goals and CSR goals are symbiotic.
5. Firm Executive and Employee Buy-In
To realize true impact at scale, internal stakeholder buy-in is key. Since CSR has become mainstream, most executives are aware that CSR initiatives are a must-do. But the extent to which your program will be sustainable and impactful in the long-term depends on your ability to convince executives that they can’t simply pay lip service to CSR, and that your program is worthy of investment on par with other business goals. Similarly, your program can’t be successful unless employees are willing to be involved and support it.
Including employees in the planning process is important, but if that wasn’t done initially, then you should seek feedback at whatever stage of the process you’re in. In our complete guide to making your business more socially responsible, we share specifics behind gaining executive and employee support.
Corporate social responsibility is here to stay, and it’s continuously evolving to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world. As professionals participating in this movement, it’s on us to incorporate standards into our programs now that will ensure long-term impact and continued growth. Keep the five factors of successful CSR programs in mind as you grow and improve your company’s sustainability efforts, and, for more customized support, get in touch with us about social impact program development and consulting.