If you aren’t already investing in a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme, you’re probably in the minority.   But is your approach to CSR mere lip service, or are you making a genuine impact beyond the interests of your business?

Statistically speaking, CSR is worth every penny; 67% of consumers say they are more likely to buy products and services from a company if they know it supports good causes, up more than 11% from the year before (Edelman’s 2010 Goodpurpose Study). It’s an important employee attraction and engagement tool, too; a recent US based study found that 76% of Millennials consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work and 64% won’t take a job if a potential employer doesn’t have strong CSR (2016 Cone Communications Millennial Employee Engagement Study).

Is CSR Just A Fad?

No question about it, CSR has a firm place at the business table. On the basis of the above statistics alone, CSR is (as it should be) far more than just a fad.  It may have debuted the business scene as little more than window dressing, generally on offer in companies with deep enough pockets to support corporate jollies that would ‘give something back’ to the community.  But it has become something far more business critical than that in recent years, and many employers recognise its moral, economic and social importance. More to the point, wise business owners understand the fundamental principle of delivering against what matters to their stakeholders, be they customers, employees, suppliers, investors or shareholders.  With the evidence pointing to the increasing value placed upon CSR, it’s becoming harder and harder to run a business without some key policies in place to demonstrate commitment in this area.

OK, But Is CSR Making A Difference … Or Is It Just Spin?

Too many businesses make the mistake of being exactly that … merely demonstrative.  After all, the business case for CSR isn’t really ever in question (even the briefest foray into the internet unleashes a plethora of data in its favour).  Making CSR count is what truly matters, and that requires something a little more thought out than an annual community gardening project involving the first 20 employees to sign up for a day away from the desk.  It’s one thing to ‘do’ CSR.  It’s quite another to do it well.  By which we mean, make a long term, measurable and sustainable difference, in a variety of ways which engage and involve as many stakeholders as possible. In other words, embed it into your organisational culture.

Here’s how …

  • Outcome Led CSR – Plan, Act, Review

We’d venture to suggest that, in order for CSR to deliver real value, the initial emphasis needs to shift from actions to outcomes. The starting point to any strategy, whether sales, service, or CSR, must always be the desired outcome, and the more measurable, the better. Plan, act, review: it’s a principle that successful businesses apply to every part of their corporate strategy, and it should be no different for CSR.  It should be just as possible to report on CSR outcomes vs planned targets at year end, as it is to report on actual vs forecast sales.  Ultimately, for something to be truly engaging and inspiring, and for those involved to buy into it (such that they invest in it as more than just an ‘initiative’), it needs to have a clear goal and sense of purpose.  It needs to be more than a one-off event, and it needs to form part of a bigger picture (or, in business speak, a vision) upon which everyone is agreed and which everyone is motivated to attain.

  • Committing To The Right CSR Cause

Which segues us neatly on to the next point.  That of creating a CSR vision which engages your stakeholders, captures their hearts and minds and rallies them into action for all the right reasons.  Achieve that, and you’re half way there.  There are myriad ways in which a business can define what it means to trade and operate ‘responsibly’ – your first task in defining your CSR strategy is to identify what matters most to your stakeholders, and exactly how your business might be able to make a difference. It’s most likely that this will in some way reflect the industry and environment in which you operate (your supply chain, consumer base, scale of business and so forth).  The greater the relevance to your stakeholders, the greater their engagement will be in the overall cause and purpose.  For example, an energy company may choose to focus on environmental issues, whilst a clothing retailer may zone in on ethical trading.  A STEM firm may want to make an impact on gender equality with better routes in for young females, or a football club may want to promote greater inclusion for the LGBT community.  Choose one focus and do it well.  It is better to give 100% to one cause or issue and make a real difference, than 10% to ten with minimal impact on any of them.

  • CSR Action Planning

Having defined and communicated your core purpose and desired outcomes, the next step is to consider how to achieve these goals. For your CSR strategy to have a true impact and be more than just superficial corporate spin, you need to consider every area of your business and how you trade.  And, far from starting with empty gestures and PR stunts, you need to go back to basics, and get your own house in order. If ethical trading is your core purpose, then start by looking inwardly.  Does your business practice what it preaches?  And what about your suppliers?  If you employ or contract people abroad, do you adopt a best practice approach to pay, benefits, health & safety and employee relations?  Ask yourself this: if your business (and all that it is associated with) were to be placed under the microscope, what flaws would be visible.  Fix those first.  Then by all means consider the grand gestures. Partner and engage with relevant charities or other local businesses to develop awareness raising events and initiatives, confident in the knowledge that your business is exactly the right ambassador to promote the issues that your CSR strategy is aiming to highlight.  That’s when others will sit up and listen, and that’s when your investment in CSR will pay the best dividends, not just for your organisation and its bottom line, but crucially for the cause you set out to support.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate!

There’s no question, based on the statistics alone, that CSR heavily influences stakeholder behaviour.  It’s a key driver of consumer choice, employee engagement, and investor relations.  So, communication regarding your CSR standpoint and impact is almost as crucial as the CSR activity itself.  People want to know what’s going on.  It drives their decisions on where to work, what to buy, which brands and organisations to follow.  So, having established where your CSR efforts will be concentrated, you need to communicate in a number of ways.  The first and most obvious is awareness raising.  What is your cause, and why is it important?  Next, goal setting.  What do you aim to achieve, and in what time scale?  Thirdly, engage and galvanise support.  How do you propose doing this and how can interested parties get involved? Finally, outcomes.  What tangible and worthwhile differences have your CSR actions made?  And this isn’t about spin.  Whilst it stands to reason that positive impact through CSR can only shine your organisation in a positive light, this should never be the primary goal, but rather a fortunate by-product.  If you’ve picked the right cause and the right focus (one which is close to your core business, and matters to your stakeholders), there should be an intrinsic desire to create a positive impact beyond the interests of the business.

  • The Role Of The CSR Expert

Many companies go so far as to create a dedicated CSR expert or even a fully staffed team.  It’s not an easy job – or, at least, if it is easy, it is probably not being done thoroughly enough.  No company is a paragon of virtue.  It is impossible to conceive that corners are not cut in every organisation for the sake of profit, and at the expense of the environment, the local community, employee welfare, equality & diversity, ethical trading or any other such example.  The very purpose of the Head of CSR is to call this into question, to seek out improvement and to drive change.  This can and will result in confronting some uncomfortable issues, and at times will be met with resistance as the business struggles to balance the need to do the right thing against the need to do the most profitable thing.

If the organisation’s commitment to CSR is genuine; if it is less about image and more about substance; if it is to be afforded its own identity as distinct from PR … then CSR deserves more than just a place at the business table.  It also deserves an influential voice.

If you would like to hear more about building an inclusive and forward thinking culture, get in touch, we’d love to hear from you: www.greatwithdiversity.com