Want to launch a CSR program at your company? Show, don’t tell.

Alexandra

Program manager at MovingWorlds.org

Want to launch a CSR program at your company? Show, don’t tell. But don’t just take it from us — that’s the approach Racquel Russell took in launching Zillow Group’s first social impact program, The Home Project. Building Zillow Group’s first ever CSR program was a challenging task without precedent to rely on, but after three years in the White House as a senior staffer to President Obama, Racquel knew how to get things accomplished and gain buy-in even against the odds.

In this episode of #BeyondBuzzwords, Racquel brought us behind the scenes to reveal how she developed The Home Project from an idea into the industry-leading program it is today. Continue reading for a guided tour through the ideation, implementation, and iteration phases of Racquel’s journey, and to pick up actionable insights that any social intrapreneur can put into action themselves.

Ideation: Designing a CSR Program that Works for Your Company

Before a program can be launched, it needs to be thoughtfully designed. In the inspiration phase of your CSR program development, Racquel suggests asking yourself the following questions as shown in the following picture:

ingredients of a strong csr program zillow group

Let’s use Zillow’s Home Project as an example to see what these 5 elements (authenticity, impact, leadership buy-in, employee buy-in, knowing what you don’t know) look like in practice:

#1: Authenticity: As a technology-driven company that helps people find homes and apartments, Zillow was uniquely positioned to understand the challenges faced by those facing housing insecurity, and to impact their housing outcomes. As Amy Bohutinsky, COO of Zillow Group, noted in a press release announcing the initiative:

“Focusing on housing insecurity is a natural extension of our work, and we will tackle it with all the resources we have to offer — shining a light on information through economic research, mobilizing our employees, contributing to organizations, and building products and features across our real estate and rental brands. We believe everyone deserves a home where they can thrive, regardless of their economic circumstances.”

#2: Impact: Before diving in, Racquel and her team did research and feasibility testing to see where Zillow’s involvement could have the greatest impact. Initially, the team considered focusing on chronic homelessness as their community of focus, but research revealed that the team would need additional mental health and physical health resources in order to affect meaningful change for this community. Further research revealed that Zillow could have the greatest impact leveraging its resources by narrowing the focus specifically to housing insecurity.

#3: Leadership Buy-In: A successful CSR program isn’t something that happens overnight. In fact, Racquel didn’t launch Zillow’s Home Project until 2 years after she joined the company. Why? Because leadership buy-in and timing matter. A lot. Rather than lobbying leadership to convince them of the value of social impact, Racquel opted to show rather than tell. She began by collecting data on what Zillow’s peers and competitors in the market were doing, digging into their program’s characteristics, results and benefits achieved, and public reception by influencers. This allowed Racquel to keep a pulse on the industry CSR trends, which she regularly reported back to Zillow’s senior leadership.

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#4: Employee Buy-In: A great program is only an idea if you don’t have the stakeholders engaged to operate it. Zillow measured employee interest in CSR by including the question on its annual employee survey, which provided tangible evidence to Racquel and the leadership team that the time was right to launch because the employees themselves wanted the program, too.

#5: Knowing What You Don’t Know: Racquel’s previous work experience at the White House confirmed for her that meaningful impact isn’t something that one stakeholder alone can create — it’s a collective effort only possible by leveraging long-term strategic partnerships. Racquel designed The Home Project to include community partners, each with their own skills and resources to increase impact. Zillow’s community partners include non-profits whose missions align with The Home Project in the regions where the company has offices, supporting them with cash and in-kind contributions such as product development, marketing resources, economic research and volunteer time.

With all of these pieces in place, Racquel didn’t have to lobby senior leadership to acquiesce and agree to implement the program. Instead, the senior leaders came to her to find out how to fit the pieces together to create a social impact program that worked for Zillow Group. By the time this happened, Racquel was prepared with the research, data, and context she needed to take the $5 million that Zillow pledged to help people and families who are one unexpected expense away from homelessness and put it to its most impactful use.

Implementation: The Home Project

To accomplish the ambitious scope of The Home Project, Zillow Group focused on integrating its platform, people, and product for maximum impact.

zillow people partners platform

Zillow leveraged its online platform to collect data, share research, and increase awareness of housing insecurity as a national issue. In scoping this project, the team realized that government data about homelessness wasn’t enough to get a full picture of the issue: due to lack of resources, the government does a ‘point in time’ count only once per year, but Zillow needed ongoing data to track changes and trends.

To get this data, Zillow converged its own mini think-tank of economists and policy analysts to do their own research, gather the data, and run studies to identify trends. These researchers in turn shared the findings with policymakers and other stakeholders, specifically focusing on the relationship between rising rents and homelessness. Zillow’s research team confirmed a correlation between increased rents and increased homelessness, finding that a 5% increase in rent leads to about 2,000 people losing their homes.

Once the team had the data, the next step was to share it. To humanize the economic research and raise awareness of the issue, Zillow leveraged their social media platform by partnering with ATTN: to produce the ‘Finding Home in America’ mini-series for social media.

In engaging its people, Zillow created avenues for employees to support The Home Project as skills-based or labor-based volunteers. Zillow Group employees can become Neighborhood Ambassadors by nominating local non-profits whose mission aligns with The Home Project, and selected organizations receive cash contributions and coordinated volunteer support office-wide. These skills-based volunteers help with things like video production, new website design, and IT infrastructure.

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In addition, as a tech-based company, Zillow had the resources to design customized products specifically for the housing insecure demographic. Most recently, in response to the fires in Northern California, Zillow Group rentals brand HotPads partnered with the city of Santa Rosa to provide data for their “Find-a-Rental” website to help those displaced find temporary housing (pictured below).

NCA ResourceGroup

Iteration: Keep Improving, and Listen to Your Employees

Even the most thoughtful, well-researched plans should be updated over time as new information becomes available. The Home Project is a shining example of a program that strikes the right balance between consistency and flexibility.

Over the first year of The Home Project, Racquel received feedback from employees who were interested in getting involved to support other causes besides housing insecurity. Racquel listened to each of their concerns, and used their feedback to compliment The Home Project with additional avenues under the company’s CSR umbrella that allowed employees to explore their passions, even if those passions weren’t identical to the company’s main cause.

Below is a graphic of Zillow Group’s expanded Social Impact Program, which in addition to the first Home Project program now includes a new Give Back program, as well as a Bridging the Opportunity Gap Program, as shown in the following graphic:

Zillow SI Graphic

These three complementary programs give employees the freedom to engage in whichever way is most meaningful to them, while still sharing the overarching goal of providing resources for the communities in which employees live and work to become more vibrant and equitable.


If Racquel’s story has inspired you to launch your own social impact program, keep these tips from her presentation in mind to support you through each phase:

  • Ideation: Choose a cause that is authentic to your business, and make sure that your involvement will make an impact by researching and aligning what your company has to offer with what the community of focus needs.
  • Implementation: Secure leadership buy-in by showing, not telling, relying on market data to make your case. Secure employee buy-in and measure interest via a survey tool before launch, and continue to collect feedback throughout.
  • Iteration: Listen to your people to inform future improvements, and try to strike the right balance between cohesion and flexibility. Know what you don’t know, and develop long-term community partnerships with mission-aligned organizations working towards the same goal.

For more CSR insights, register to join us for November’s #BeyondBuzzwords to hear from Bari Saltman, Social Impact Manager at LinkedIn, about what it takes to scale up a new program at the world’s most popular social networking and education platform.

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