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Putting the Social Responsibility in Social Impact: Why CSR Isn’t Just for Businesses

Last month’s announcement from the founder of Patagonia that he was donating the company to support efforts to fight climate change caught the attention of many. Not only was the act of giving away a profitable business in the name of a cause essentially unheard of, but the announcement itself was well crafted and inspiring in its earnestness and simplicity. While, generally, there is little expectation of other companies following suit, recent surveys point to an increased desire for them to get involved in social matters. Wage inequality, the economy, the environment, and discrimination were among the top issues named by consumers. This interest in knowing where companies stand on these issues and seeing them take actions that will benefit communities, as well as their bottom line, is driving significant growth in corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. 


For mission-driven organizations – those which exist to make the world better in some way, through education, community development, or a variety of other areas – social responsibility is already embedded in their day-to-day work. Even so, a CSR initiative or campaign could represent an opportunity to be more explicit, turn the focus inward, and demonstrate to the people you work with and for that you walk the walk as well as you talk the talk. For nonprofit leaders contemplating how to adopt social responsibility measures, there are strategy, brand, and communications considerations to keep in mind. 


Focus on what matters to your constituent audiences and aligns with your mission and values.

When it comes to types of social responsibility that organizations can commit to, there are many different directions they could pursue. Depending on who you serve and how, not all of those directions will be a natural fit. Narrow down the list of options by posing some basic, but important questions: What matters to us? What kind of change do we hope to create? What do the individuals and groups in our “orbit” care about? The answer might be equity. It might be economic opportunity or a clean environment. How do you embody those things as an organization? How might you do it better? By setting your sights on something that has connective tissues to your work, it’s more likely to be impactful and not leave people in your network scratching their heads. 


Solicit team and stakeholder input early to improve buy-in efforts later on.

The time for board members, staff, and partners to find out about a social responsibility initiative is not the day you launch it, or even the week before. For one reason, they will be far less likely to support it if they feel like they had no voice in the process. Also, you will have missed a valuable opportunity to gain useful insights into what motivates those who are directly and indirectly driving your work. Are there aspects of your culture and operations that could be improved? Are there practices or processes that seem counter to your shared beliefs? Are there causes they are invested in or support individually that your organization could champion? A survey is a great vehicle for soliciting perspectives, as long as it’s administered with guaranteed anonymity so respondents aren’t concerned their honesty will result in blowback. 


Avoid performative measures.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resulting racial reckoning, many brands and institutions released statements and announced a commitment to addressing racial inequities – with varying degrees of success. Generally, efforts that received a warmer reception were ones that had specific, actionable promises. An example of this would be Peloton’s pledge to become an antiracist organization, which included goal metrics around access to their classes in underserved communities, funds to support DEI training for their team, and wage inequality adjustments. In today’s world, audiences are becoming increasingly savvy about lip service. “We’re going to do better at X.” Okay, great…how? Reduce your carbon footprint by how much? Increase the diversity of your team by what percent? If you’re not prepared to put down stakes now, it may be best to hold off on a social responsibility effort, rather than risk putting out something that rings hollow. 


Commit to being accountable and transparent about outcomes.

It may sound cliche to say – but social responsibility is in fact a marathon, not a sprint. The launch of an initiative is just the beginning. Organizations that never report back on whether or not they reached the finish line risk a multitude of negative results, including lower staff satisfaction, negative press attention, and decreased funding opportunities. On the other hand, organizations that create a clear process and timeline for measuring progress and are forthcoming, both internally and externally, about that progress are more likely to continue to see support for these efforts. It’s better to say “we haven’t reached our goal yet” than to pretend you didn’t set one in the first place.