Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a management concept where companies integrate social and environmental initiatives in their business operations and interactions with their stakeholders. Often referred to as a triple-bottom line business model that supports people, planet, and profit, companies with robust CSR programs can experience benefits ranging from increased employee retention to brand awareness and loyalty, and an improved public reputation.
Increasingly, workers expect their employers to have some type of CSR or social impact program within their organization.
According to a 2020 report from the communications company Porter Novelli, nearly nine in 10 business leaders believe companies that lead with purpose have a competitive advantage in today’s marketplace, and 85% of business leaders agree that being a purpose-driven company drives profit.
“CSR programs are no longer nice-to-haves, they’re now a need-to-have,” explains Erin Mogel, Founder and CEO of Elevate Social Impact, a consulting firm that helps companies strategize and implement corporate social responsibility programs. “CSR is an important part of any business ranging in size from a small mom-and-pop storefront to a major Fortune 500 corporation.”
Here, Erin outlines the main benefits that CSR initiatives can offer companies and employees, tips to start a CSR program from scratch, and CSR best practices and recommendations.
Top benefits of CSR programs
Corporate social responsibility is a vital way that companies can make an impact in their local, national, and international communities. In addition to being important economic drivers, businesses also create and amplify culture, build community, and mobilize their employees, customers, and stakeholders to make a difference.
But CSR programs also have demonstrable monetary benefits to businesses, explains Erin. These benefits include:
CSR helps attract and retain talent
While the red-hot hiring frenzy of 2020 has slightly cooled, it behooves every company to strive to hire and retain top talent. And research shows that companies with commitments to social impact are more attractive to job seekers. Younger workers are especially interested in working for environmentally and ethically mindful organizations.
“Especially for Gen Z and Millennial employees, if they see that a company is doing good for society, they are more likely to want to work there than for a similar company that doesn't have a CSR strategy in place,” says Erin.
CSR increases employee engagement
According to a report by Gallup, connecting employees to a purpose is a main way to increase employee engagement. This matters because an engaged workforce is more productive, innovative, profitable, and enthusiastic than their less-engaged counterparts. CSR programs build purpose and values into the workplace.
Many CSR initiatives also include activities (such as volunteering, pro bono service work, skills-based mentoring, and charitable giving opportunities) that heighten collaboration and team-building among employees, making them feel more connected to their colleagues and their company.
CSR increases sales
While CSR isn’t directly a revenue-building activity, many organizations find that their CSR efforts do give them a competitive edge, according to a 2021 study published in The Journal of Competitiveness. “CSR is a source of competitive advantage by creating intangible resources within an enterprise which are important to securing competitive advantage, as these properties are valuable, rare, and hard to imitate.”
In other words, customers factor a company’s social and environmental efforts into their buying decisions.
According to a recent McKinsey report, 78% of consumers say that living a sustainable lifestyle is important to them, and 60% of shoppers would pay more for products that have sustainable packaging. Broadly, McKinsey found that products from companies with environmental and social impact claims averaged 28% cumulative growth over the past five-year period, versus 20% growth for products from companies with no such claims. “Now more than ever, CSR is going to help your brand stand out against organizations that are not giving back,” says Erin. “Increasingly more consumers are looking to companies that are sustainable and have a social impact commitment.”
CSR improves a company’s public image
Corporate social responsibility programs are a palpable way to showcase a company’s mission and vision to employees, customers, and stakeholders.
Effective social impact initiatives also demonstrate that a company puts its values to action, defining the ethos and purpose of an organization, and elevating a company’s marketplace reputation.
How to start a CSR program from scratch
1. Get executive buy-in
It’s near impossible to build a successful CSR program if you don’t first have support from top-level leaders and decision makers. Effective CSR requires time and finances — and without executive buy-in, you’ll have a tough time securing required resources.
Provide examples of how CSR programs benefit employees, improve brand-marketing, and attract more customers. Highlight how CSR programs bolster your entire businesses.
Even if your CSR program doesn’t immediately receive executive buy-in, continue to bring it up every quarter. Often, resistance to CSR program implementation is due to a lack of education about its benefits.
2. Consider where CSR will sit within your organization
Corporate social responsibility programs can be housed in various departments within your company. Sometimes, CSR can be a function of human resources. It can also sit within marketing and communications, sustainability teams, or even within executive departments.
Work with upper-level management to identify which team should take ownership over CSR at your organization. Even if you hire a CSR consulting firm to help guide your program, there still needs to be a dedicated CSR employee or team at the company to help with strategy. “While consultants can take on a lot of the burden and provide CSR expertise, we will still need to work with you to understand your mission, brand, and how your company functions, define your purpose, determine the cause areas that are important to your organization, and understand how your brand positions itself for maximum impact,” says Erin.
3. Involve your employees
Focus your CSR efforts by choosing cause areas that matter to your employees. Any give-back program must reflect the values of the people and teams who are behind the company.
Try gathering a task force of passionate employees who share your commitment to implementing a CSR program, and engage them in ongoing discussions to help construct the values you’d like your company to amplify. Then, send a survey to employees asking them to rank impact areas that broadly relate to your company’s work.
For example, if your organization is in the food industry, consider focusing your CSR programming on increasing access to healthy food in your community. If you work at a tech company, perhaps an impact area may involve STEAM education for under-resourced communities. “It’s important for your employees to feel a connection to their day-to-day work when volunteering or participating in social impact experiences with their team,” says Erin. “It brings the work full circle.”
4. Be vocal about your initiatives
CSR works best when every employee is involved. That’s why it’s important to well-communicate your company’s new CSR program to all employees, customers, and stakeholders.
Announce the new programming during all-hands meetings, and send detailed follow-up emails highlighting your impact areas, nonprofit partners, unified language around the program, and how employees can get involved. Improve participation rates by ensuring that every employee knows about the CSR program.
Develop and evolve your CSR strategy
To establish a CSR strategy, decide on a social impact experience cadence for the upcoming year. It’s OK to start small. Consider beginning with a company-wide day of service, and slowly build programming into quarterly, and then monthly events. Also consider incorporating giving days into important events that your company is already planning to celebrate, such as summer picnics, company anniversaries, sales kickoff meetings, and more.
Develop relationships with nonprofit partners
Partnering with a carefully vetted nonprofit is a key way to ensure your CSR program makes a real community impact. But developing nonprofit relationships can be a massive lift — especially if you don’t have past experience working with nonprofits.
Onboarding a social impact experience provider such as Visit.org gives you access to an inventory of amazing nonprofits in communities around the world. Visit.org’s team of experts have hundreds of years of combined experience working with nonprofits, which allows you to develop meaningful social impact experiences anytime, anywhere.
“Organizations like Visit.org can guide you in your CSR journey, and help get your volunteer program off the ground,” says Erin.
Report on your success
Measuring the impact of your CSR event, experience, or program is critical, as it shows your employees, customers, community, and stakeholders the result of your efforts. Even if you just have one volunteer event, show participation rates, volunteer hours, funds raised and donated, and the output of your work (such as area cleared and beautified in a park or bag lunches created and distributed).
“While an annual impact report is the end goal, when you’re starting off small, a one-page report is fine,” says Erin. “The key here is to be able to track your impact over time, keep employees motivated that their volunteering made a difference, and be able to report back to nonprofit partners and company stakeholders alike on the impact that you’re having.”
Erin also suggests adding quotes to your impact reports from employee volunteers, your nonprofit partners, or community members to tell the story of your CSR impact.
CSR programs can start small — and grow
Starting a corporate social responsibility program at your company can feel intimidating — especially if you need to make the case for CSR and social impact to upper-level management. But by starting small, leveraging your company’s values to define your CSR impact areas, and gathering the input of your employees to learn what they’re passionate about, building a CSR strategy doesn’t have to be difficult.
Lean on the expertise of consultants and social impact service providers to help scale your programs to multiple office locations or regions, and build and maintain relationships with your nonprofit partners to make real community impacts.
Even if your CSR program consists of just one volunteering event or charitable giving opportunity to start, make sure that you report back on your impact. By tracking CSR at your company at the beginning, you’ll lay the groundwork for larger and more successful CSR programs in the future.
Get in touch to learn how Visit.org can help your company scale its CSR program.