In a recent Global Giving survey, half of Millennials responding said they would accept a lower salary to work in an organization aligned with their values. Another firm’s studies reflected 70 to 89 percent approval from workers who responded to companies’ support for employee volunteer programs. A consumer survey revealed more than two-thirds of respondents across 60 countries prefer to deal with companies with a demonstrable positive effect on the world around them, whether that encompasses ethical treatment of employees, ethical sourcing of materials, charitable giving, or overall environmental impact.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become a central component of companies’ strategic planning and their marketing and branding activities. CSR has come a long way from when it was looked at as an afterthought or something “nice” to do, but not an essential activity.
Today, the CSR landscape is completely different: Stakeholders at every level – customers, board members, employees, and the public – routinely look at a company’s ability to engage as a responsible corporate citizen when they make purchasing and employment decisions. Today’s CSR activities may address global issues such as climate change or the refugee crisis, or they may spark conversations on the community level about social justice, equity, and diversity.
The gold standard of CSR
A wealth of examples demonstrates that, when a company practices CSR during even the most stressful of times – such as the COVID-19 pandemic – it can drive significant positive change, not only for the greater good of the surrounding community but to support its own bottom line.
Patagonia is among the world’s most successful CSR practitioners, seamlessly uniting its core brand identity with a strongly linked and authentic mission in the global community. The outdoor supply company has built its image around good corporate citizenship.
Among Patagonia’s most effective initiatives are closing its doors on election day to give every employee the opportunity to vote; linking its supply chains to sustainable resources; and returning, as a means of helping combat climate change, a multimillion-dollar tax break it received from the government. It even pioneered the development of innovative and more sustainable materials, produced environmentally centered documentaries, and crafted public awareness campaigns, such as a recent one to promote active participation in democracy through voting.
So how can a company new to CSR start scaling up to reach Patagonia-like levels?
Prepare to do the work
Experienced practitioners say it’s not easy and requires a commitment of time and resources over the long term. Additionally, what CSR looks like at one organization will likely be very different from how it rolls out at another, calling for a thorough study of the company’s identity, values, resources, and goals.
Each company that determines to carry out a genuine CSR program is making a big commitment: pledging to consider all its decisions in light of their impact on individual human beings, society, and the planet.
Talk to the C-suite
Early steps need to involve buy-in from leadership. Getting a company’s executive team on board is vital. Without this support, needed changes won’t happen. Even if the CEO is not interested, another member of executive leadership might be able to act as a champion and get behind needed strategic planning efforts.
Find what’s achievable
Start out with a CSR project of manageable size and work up from one smaller success to a larger one. For example, consider donating a portion of annual sales to a community nonprofit whose mission and values align with your company’s. Likewise, an initial effort could focus on phasing out the use of less environmentally sound materials in packing and shipping, or in some other way addressing your company’s environmental footprint through the materials you use.
Get the right fit
Any emerging CSR effort must be built around a company’s core identity and must involve partners who offer the right fit. A financial planning firm might find numerous natural opportunities to support financial literacy classes for adults re-entering the workforce, or a program that would help under-served children receive access to needed educational resources.
Measure for multiple kinds of success
Establish metrics that will record performance over time. Keep in mind that some benefits of a well-developed CSR strategy will be intangible, such as employee satisfaction or the happiness of students who participate in a company-sponsored cultural education program.
Network with other companies focused on executing well-thought-out CSR programs, and stay connected to take advantage of others’ experiences and insights.
Share your story
Communicate the goals of your CSR program to employees at every level of the organization, so they can clearly articulate them to the public and act as brand ambassadors for the ways in which your CSR activities engage the community.
In addition, be sure to involve employees in the building and growth of your CSR work. Rather than feeling they are forced to participate, you want them to develop their own enthusiasm for the mission they can then share with others.
Once you have your CSR strategy in place, communicate mission, goals, and success stories widely, paying particular attention to social media. The more customer support you can build for your company and its efforts to make the world a better place, the more resources you will have to further that mission.