Is CSR dead? 3 Key questions to ask when evaluating your CSR strategy

I was recently invited to join a panel discussion at a thought provoking seminar at the Leeds Digital Festival led by the fantastic Rob Wolfe of CHY Consultancy, during which I got to both talk to and learn from a group of innovative CSR and Impact Managers. Rob gave us a really strong overview of how CSR has evolved over the years and where it sits today. And while my initial remit on the webinar was to talk about the changes I have seen in the CSR industry over the years, it quickly became evident that there are myths to be addressed in CSR and advice needed on the direction the industry is heading in. So, I thought I would share with you 3 of the key questions that Rob, myself and the other panelists tackled and explore how you can use this information to drive your own CSR or Social Value strategy.

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Is CSR Dead…?

Well that is a direct question, isn’t it? CSR, being the term Corporate Social Responsibility, is being used less and less amongst corporate teams and vested stakeholders. The meaning of giving back to society is changing. It has, in the past, often been a corporate box ticking exercise. As Rob Wolfe put it:

“CSR at its worst is a PR campaign led exercise that is more bothered about looking good rather than making genuine impact”

And, as Rob explained to us all,  no where was this more evident than at Volkswagen back in 2013. Rob took us through the astounding example of how Volkswagen were given an award by the World Forum for Ethics in Business for being an “Outstanding Corporation” due to  “the leadership of Volkswagen in the assumption of corporate social responsibility and the implementation of outstanding and innovative projects”. Unfortunately, in 2015 it became clear that they had designed a system to deliberately circumnavigate the emissions testing of their dirty engines while at the same time becoming the number one car manufacturer in large part because of their presumed environmentally friendly cars. Corporate and social responsibility was clearly a PR exercise for them and nothing else. Read more about the Volkswagan emissions scandal.

So, thinking of CSR as a PR campaign or showing the community how well you are supporting them is outdated and could even be bad business. Instead, again in the words of Rob Wolfe;

“CSR at its best is social value”.

For us at Thrive, Social Value is the value created by an organisation beyond its revenue and profits. And organisations are in a prime position to deliver highly on the value scale. There is a ‘virtuous circle’ that can occur when businesses invest in social issues and sustainability strategies –numerous studies show that businesses with a purpose beyond profits are outperforming their peers in many ways, not least because they attract and retain better talent and more committed employees. When a business can create both increased profits and an increased social return,  that organisation will be more invested in investing more – into the environmental agenda, social aspects, whatever it might be for them – that then feeds back to an even better bottom line which creates this ‘virtuous circle’ which is good for business and good for society.

Thus is CSR itself dead? The overall sentiment of people and businesses doing good is not dead! It underpins everything we are trying to do in this industry.  But the way we look at it has changed and businesses can no longer be judged on the outward appearance of what they are giving back. We are now at that tipping point where the business case is clear to build it into your structure. And it’s not just about giving. There needs to be a deeper purpose, a broader vision of what a company is trying to achieve and how they operate internally, for the social ‘good’ they are delivering to be really effective.

Unfortunately, there will only ever be a certain number of people or businesses who are truly philanthropic enough to want to ‘give’, but yes there is still a place for corporate philanthropy as part of the mix. And the thing that is very encouraging is the progression of the CSR agenda – or ESG or Sustainability, whatever acronym you put on it – there is now a clear business case for it. If we can articulate this, then even those most hardnosed business execs can find a reason to invest!

How do I start a new CSR – or Social Value – strategy and what do I incorporate into it from the start?

The first thing to do is to look at the broad definitions of social value that are out there. We work with a number of organisations who are doing something with CSR or social value but want to take the next step on that maturity level. Irrespective of the definitions you see, looking at social value goes beyond the traditional thought of CSR being a philanthropic or community investment type of thing. Now it is a holistic view of environmental concerns, sustainability, local economic spend, diversity and inclusion and many more aspects looking broadly across the board. When organisations come to us at the beginning of their social value journey we look at the metrics that come built into our software. We look down the list together and ask them to find the quick wins -what are you doing already where you can craft that social value strategy and social value story – you don’t need to be revolutionary from day one – often organisations are doing a lot already and they don’t realise it is actually social value – it could be training programs that they are delivering, employment options, sustainability programs they have in place – so look broadly at what you are doing. Social value is the future of CSR and it very much encompasses those community aspects but it also goes way beyond that.

Another aspect to review is once you have started looking at what you already do, look at where your ambitions lie for the future – which of these themes are most aligned with your businesses purpose and where can you have the most influence – you may want to impact food poverty around the world but actually where does your business have that influence? This is where you need to start.

Why bother?

I love the way Rob Wolfe summed this up to the audience by using the African philosophy of Ubuntu – “I am because we are”. Or as Desmond Tutu says:

“we measure the success of who we are by our impact on other people”.

It is about having a purpose within your business, a purpose beyond making money and that is really at the heart of social value.

But also… It improves talent, diverse thinking and creativity within your business. In 2015 there was a research project that highlighted 42% of staff are looking to work for businesses that have a positive impact on society and 44% of those in the survey said having a positive impact on society was more important than money in a job. People are asking about social and environmental impact. It is important to your future workforce and so it helps improve the talent within your business.

It improves growth. 60% of consumers are now more mindful about where they buy their products and services from, they want to buy those products and services from socially and environmentally beneficial businesses and not those that are simply seen to be ‘green washing’ or worse; actually harming the environment or community. The pandemic has really focused the view of the general population, honing in on community, wellbeing and impact in a way unseen prior to 2021.

If you would like to take your CSR strategy to the next level, please get in touch. And a huge thanks to CHY Consultancy for running this seminar and giving me the opportunity to talk to others in the industry about what is an ever evolving topic.