Three Things Every Business Should Ask Before Implementing A CSR Strategy
They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and this is no less true when it comes to implementing corporate social responsibility strategies. From Volkswagen's duplicitous attempts to promote clean-running vehicles to "woke-washing," it's clear that companies often make mistakes or bad judgement calls when it comes to creating and implementing corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies.
Businesses both big and small need to ask themselves the following questions before implementing a corporate social responsibility strategy on any level.
Why are we doing this?
CSR strategies aimed at improving a brand's reputation, atoning for mistakes made by the company in the past, or cashing in on a current cultural movement are destined to fail. Often, these short-sighted strategies result in a one-time contribution or campaign, which can fall flat or even backfire in terms of consumer perception.
Businesses looking to create a corporate social responsibility strategy need to start with why. A CSR strategy could initiate with a founder, like with Patagonia, or could be initiated by employees, like with Cabot. CSR strategies may even naturally emerge in the course of doing business, as companies become more aware of their social and environmental impact, or may be brought to the company's attention by customers.
Whatever the origin, a CSR strategy must arise from a sincere commitment to leverage a businesses' resources to create positive social or environmental change (more on that later). CSR should never be a "band-aid" to existing PR problems.
How will we do this?
CSR strategies should flow as naturally as a businesses' normal course of operations. As mentioned previously, a one-time donation or campaign is NOT a corporate responsibility strategy.
It's helpful to refer to the S.M.A.R.T acronym when creating a CSR strategy. It should be:
Specific. "Going green" is not a specific goal. How does that sentiment translate to your business' operations in terms of waste management or energy and water use? Once you've identified an area of interest, dive deeper until you're able to reach a clearly-defined goal.
Measurable. Having clear metrics and a consistent way of recording progress towards CSR strategies is key. To avoid the pitfall of overstating social impact, having a third-party assess progress towards goals may be helpful.
Achievable. If corporate social responsibility is new to your organization, don't over-promise and under-deliver. Set attainable goals that challenge your organization, but remember that it's a marathon, not a sprint. Allbirds is a good example of a company that has taken a long-game approach to reducing carbon emissions.
Relevant. This relates to your company's "why" in developing a CSR strategy. Ideally, your path towards creating positive social value is related in some way to how your company creates business value. Starbucks' commitment to supporting local coffee farmers is an example of this.
Timely. CSR strategies can often get pushed to the back burner in the day-to-day operations of running a business. This is why it's critical to set periods where your team can hold itself accountable for meeting social impact goals, in a similar manner that you might hold your team accountable for sales or other business goals.
What is required from each member of our team, and what are the possible repercussions?
The most successful CSR strategies engage employees at every level of an organization. Although a CSR initiative may be decided at the CEO/board level, leaders need to be able to cast a vision for social impact that inspires and engages the entire team. This could mean making social impact progress a regular part of communication or meetings, soliciting ideas or suggestions on implementation from employees, or tying incentives to CSR benchmarks and goals.
Leaders should exemplify commitment to the company's social impact priorities on both a personal and professional level. The best leaders have a commitment to their values that is contagious, and that's no different when it comes to social impact.
Businesses also need to be aware of the possible repercussions when implementing a social impact strategy. This may mean having difficult conversations with managers about changing business operations to reflect new organizational priorities, maintaining open dialogue with customers and other stakeholders about progress towards goals, and developing relationships with nonprofits and advocacy organizations to continue to learn and assess the current CSR strategy. No CSR strategy is perfect, so approaching your process with transparency allows you to quickly learn from mistakes and move forward with humility.
It's an exciting time in the social impact space, as businesses large and small begin to work towards understanding and improving their social and environmental impact. If you're interested in working with Novel to create, implement, or assess your social impact strategy, feel free to contact us below.