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Breaking Out of the CSR Box: How to Build Social Impact Into Your Whole Business

By 3p Contributor

By Amy Silverstein and Megan Schumann, Monitor Institute by Deloitte

In recent years, the push for businesses to be about more than business and embrace a social purpose has risen from a murmur among millennial workers and the occasional CEO to a resounding call across the business world. Executives, employees, consumers, and even investors are looking beyond the bottom line and asking, “What does it really mean for companies to have social impact?”

Traditionally, corporate social impact has focused largely on activities such as donations, sponsorships, community relations and volunteerism, and over the last decade or two, companies often centralized these responsibilities within their corporate social responsibility (CSR) unit.

But social impact efforts have expanded in recent years to affect every part of business, cutting across functions and business units. Within a single company, social impact might include efforts related to building diversity of the workforce, increasing transparency of the supply chain, attracting purpose-driven consumers, and establishing environmental and human rights requirements for business partners.

Savvy CSR professionals recognize that a company’s social impact activities no longer fit neatly within just one group. It is harder than ever for CSR units to see the full span of activity across a company—much less to control it—even as corporate leadership looks to answer questions as to how disparate efforts fit together, and what the cost and return on investment will be.

Given the breadth of activity, the historical CSR function has simply become too small a box for all of a company’s social purpose activities. “We can’t afford to be ‘bolted-on’ to the business as a separate unit; instead social impact needs to be ‘built in’ to our company’s strategy, which means showing up across many aspects of how we operate,” shared Caroline Barlerin, global head of social innovation at Eventbrite.

The roles that a more integrated CSR function can play are still emerging, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model approach. Through our consulting work with leading corporations over the last several years, we’ve identified three small but important shifts that can help CSR teams begin to adapt to the new, more distributed landscape of corporate social impact.

1. Think like a B Corp.

Most companies will never become fully-fledged B Corporations, the new designation for enterprises that seamlessly blend business and social goals together while meeting certifiable standards around social, environmental, accountability and transparency goals. However, CSR groups can learn important lessons from B Corps.

For starters, B Corps are clear about both their business and their social goals—and how the two work together. This means developing and articulating a high-level understanding of the company’s social aims, and thinking about how those goals fit with the larger business strategy. While CSR groups may not be positioned to unilaterally set their companies’ social impact goals, they are uniquely positioned to document firm-wide social impact activities, make sense of what’s happening, and help formulate how social and business goals can be integrated.

Additionally, while less than 2,000 companies have gone so far as to become B Corp-certified, an additional 50,000 businesses have used the B Impact Assessment tool, a diagnostic that helps a company understand where it stands on a wide range of issues. Moving forward, CSR groups can lend their expertise in helping to understand, measure and communicate the impact of dispersed social impact efforts across the firm.

2. Be a resource and a guide to “social intrapreneurs.”

One of the reasons social impact is spreading so widely within companies is the growing amount of individual initiative being taken by senior business leaders and employees. Pockets of internally motivated individuals focused on social impact can greatly extend the reach of CSR teams and dramatically leverage their efforts. Keeping in close contact with these intrapreneurs enhances the CSR group’s credibility as it authentically engages employees and business leaders around their interests and taps their creativity and energy in productive ways.

Forward-thinking CSR groups are exploring how they can guide these emergent efforts toward greater impact. For instance, CSR team members can influence the design of these efforts, help find resources, better communicate their actions, connect with relevant nonprofits and coalitions, measure their impact, and align with firm-wide goals and messaging when appropriate.

3. Manage social impact as a portfolio.

Given the wide range of social impact activities that are occurring within companies these days—corporate giving, employee volunteerism, signature social impact initiatives, cause-related marketing, supply chain sustainability and so much more—there is inevitably a growing need for firms to take a more holistic view of what is happening. As a result, innovative CSR leaders are starting to play a new role in understanding and managing the full portfolio of social purpose activities across the company.

While there will be no “right” answers and CSR units will rarely have full control over the portfolio, they can nevertheless play an important role in “holding the whole.” This includes monitoring progress against key performance metrics, thinking about balance across the portfolio, and exploring how social and business strategies can be integrated to enhance both goals. As the complexity of firms’ social impact work increases, the need for smart portfolio management will only continue to grow.

The bottom line

As social purpose efforts ripple throughout a firm, unprepared CSR groups may risk getting marginalized, even as social impact activity blossoms around them. However, by embracing these new ideas with smart planning and nimble leadership, CSR units can evolve to become hubs that are central to a company’s ongoing social impact.

Amy Silverstein is a senior leader of the Monitor Institute by Deloitte and co-leads the Institute's corporate social impact strategy practice.

Megan Schumann consults organizations committed to tackling the pressing issues of our time in ways that draw on their greatest assets and strengths. She is a project manager for the Monitor Institute by Deloitte.

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