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Stay Relevant: Navigating the Shifting Landscape of Corporate Social Responsibility

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Isa Watson

“Responsibility” means different things for different people. For a five-year-old, it could mean picking up after yourself or brushing your own teeth. For a thirty-five-year-old, it (hopefully) still means those same things, but it also includes a broader awareness of how your actions affect the people around you – the idea of “social responsibility.”

Corporate social responsibility (CSR), also known as corporate social impact, is the same concept on an aggregate level. Does your company positively impact the people it serves and employs? CSR started simply as the idea that companies should give back part of their profits to charity. It has since evolved to include a more comprehensive view of companies as key players in society with responsibility towards the planet, consumers, local communities, and their employees.

But it’s not a static concept – ideas about CSR and what it means are constantly changing as society evolves around it. As the CSR landscape continues to shift, what are today’s main influencing factors and how do they impact you as a nonprofit or company?

Workplace Trends – Changing More than You Think

A company’s social responsibility priorities are directly related to the make-up of that company. The landscape of today’s American workforce is changing, and companies are having to adjust priorities accordingly.

Today’s multigenerational workforce ranges from millennials with the largest representation[1] to silent generation as the oldest. While it is impossible to accurately characterize an entire generation, individuals across generations do have different priorities based on age and experience. Companies must find modern engagement and CSR solutions that are appropriate across such diverse employees. 

The workplace is also increasingly matrixed, with more people working remotely or on multiple teams for different projects. The gig economy of independent workers has also begun to rise (51% of organizations interviewed by Deloitte in 2016 said their organizations plan to increase the use of flexible and independent workers in the next three to five years)[2]. This means that companies must figure out creative ways to create common culture and a sense of unity across employees.

Consumer Expectations – On the Hunt for Good

With so much visibility around how companies conduct business, consumers also expect to see more examples of companies gone good. In fact, according to Cone Communications, 90% of global consumers are likely to switch brands to one associated with a good cause, given comparable price and quality. From sustainable sourcing to corporate giving, companies are expected to go above and beyond any industry regulations.

This, perhaps, is the common thread of CSR across the years: it is not compelling unless it is voluntary. Employees and consumers alike want to feel like CSR is something companies WANT to be doing. This means that companies increasingly must discover what causes authentically identify with their brand and their employees…

So What – What’s In It For You?

…which brings us to you. What does all of this mean for you?

For Nonprofits:

As companies continue to update and expand their CSR efforts, here’s how you can grow with them:

  • Find natural fit. Most companies have existing areas of focus, and so while they might be looking to give more local choices to their employees, they are likely to start with nonprofits that align with what their leadership or employees care about. Remember, CSR has to be authentic – if it’s forced, it won’t be good for them or for you.
  • Meet employees where they are. Make it easy for companies to send their employees your way by equipping them with communication tools. Don’t be afraid to go digital! If companies are trying to give choices to their employees, they need resources to market you to those employees. This could range from updates sent specifically to companies to keeping your social media feed up to date and easily accessible.
  • Build companies into your communication plan. As companies are constantly readjusting their CSR strategies, you’ll want to know how to grow with them. This means deliberately adding them into your broader communication plan. What might their employees want to know about you and how can you make sure they have access to that news?
  • Position yourself within the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. More and more companies are adopting the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Familiarize yourself with the SDGs so you can explain to companies where you fit and help them be an industry leader in CSR.

For Companies:

Given the modern workplace, CSR becomes an employee engagement tool that needs to be able to accommodate the changing needs of younger, more flexible employees. Here are a few ways to start:

  • Give employees choice. Allow your employees to bring the causes they care about to work. This doesn’t negate company-wide causes, but it’s not enough to have only those available.
  • Provide individual and group involvement. Let your employees interact with your CSR efforts as individuals, but give them ways to organize and participate with their colleagues of similar interests.
  • United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Make specific commitments within the 17 SDGs and track your impact accordingly. Know how your CSR priorities help advance these goals and message that to your employees and consumers.
  • Equip your recruiters and HR department. In order to use CSR effectively as an employee engagement tool, you need to give your HR department leadership in driving that forward. Make sure they are up to date with everything you are doing, and allow them to influence your company’s priorities based on what they hear from employees and potential hires.

Context is important for understanding, and the CSR landscape is no different. Corporate social responsibility might be changing based on workplace trends and consumer expectations, but it’s not going anywhere. To effectively navigate CSR, you must adjust accordingly. Not sure where to begin? Choose just one of the suggestions above to build out in a way that makes sense for you and your organization today.


[1] Pew Research Center, 2015

[2] Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends, 2016


Isa Watson is the Founder and CEO of Envested, an enterprise software company that created the next generation workplace giving and employee engagement solution. The Envested software, featured in Fast Company, customizes the local giving experience while elevating workplace collaboration and connectivity. Prior to Envested, Isa was a Vice President at JP Morgan Chase & Co and a scientist at Pfizer. Isa earned an MBA from MIT – Sloan, MS in Pharmacology from Cornell, and BS in Chemistry from Hampton University. Isa has been featured in Forbes as an “Inspiring Woman in Tech” and in 2016 was named a Top 40 under 40 leader by the Triangle Business Journal and Top 40 alumni under 40 by Hampton University.

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