How to Stand out When Corporate Social Responsibility is the New Normal

“To serve is beautiful, but only if it is done with joy and a whole heart and a free mind.”

-Pearl S. Buck


Why is everyone so obsessed with CSR?

Over the past five years, there has been a significant increase in corporations participating and forming corporate social responsibility programs. Did everyone suddenly become better people? Should someone welcome us all to the new age of enlightenment? 

I don’t think it’s that simple. Many folks will give you theories on why there’s been such an increase in companies participating in corporate responsibility, but one argument remains the strongest of all: the millennials. 

The phenomenon is quite simple actually, and plays out something like this: 

At 86 million, millennials are the largest generational population group ever in the United States.


Millennials make up much of the workforce.


Millennials are have high expectations for corporate social responsibility—the 2013 Cone Communications Social Impact Study found that 91% of millennials have increased trust, 89% have increased loyalty, and 89% are more likely to buy from socially responsible companies.


Millennials care more about the integrity of companies than previous generations—even to the point of CSR being a new religion, claims Andrew Swinland. 


78% consider a company’s social outreach when looking for jobs


Because the talent pool of millennials is so large and millennials care about social impact, Corporations use CSR as a way to sell their companies to them.


Companies with strong sustainability programs, “have 55% better morale, 43% more efficient businesses processes, 43% stronger public image, and 38% better employee loyalty,” (says Susanne Gargiulo, for CNN) than companies with poor programs. 


The higher the overall level of engagement, the more your staff will, “consistently speak positively about your organization, intend to stay with your organization, and go over and above in what’s expected of them.” 


It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that happier, more productive, more loyal employees help increase revenue. (Plus, a bad hire can cost you thousands of dollars.)

Here’s a simpler breakdown…

World 🙂 = Employee 🙂 , Employee 🙂 = Employer 🙂

Is it wrong to do CSR for the benefits?

This is a question I struggle with quite often. Niall FitzGerald, the former CEO of Unilever once said, “Corporate social responsibility is a hard-edged business decision. Not because it is a nice thing to do or because people are forcing us to do it…because it is good for our business.” 

Niall crushes the idealist in me. CSR good for business? What about higher call to action?! A higher purpose?! A greater good?! Why does everything have to come down to dollar signs?! Nevertheless, a company’s (seemingly) selfless actions will most likely have a positive return on investment—and actions can’t really be selfless if it benefits the giver, right? 

Maybe your motivations are to make the world a better place, or maybe your motivations are to make your employees happy—both are good intentions. If the prospect of higher sales motivates you, then maybe you need to gain some perspective…put yourself in the shoes of your consumer. They feel a sense of connectedness which motivates them to buy from a socially conscious company. Can you learn from them to have the same sense of connectedness? 

As long as you put someone else’s needs (an employee, a customer, persons in need, a tree, etc.) before your own interests (like sales), you shouldn’t worry about reconciling your actions with your motivations. 

Benefiting business does not make CSR initiatives any less socially responsible. Companies like Disney, Google, Microsoft, and BMW should receive a standing ovation for how much they’ve positively impacted communities around the world—these four tied as the global companies perceived with the greatest CSR. The Four No.1’s are probably delighted with this recognition, and will no doubt reap the benefits of customer approval.

So Niall FitzGerald is right that CSR is good for business—but business doesn’t have to be all about money. CSR has proven to improve employee morale, create a stronger public image, expand brand recognition, and increase employee loyalty (we’ve noticed this last benefit in particular at our company). In serving, there’s a perspective shift. An instance when the company participates in something greater than itself.

The idealist in me can rest easy. Monetary ROI might happen, but after molding this company culture of serving, the question of if CSR is for good business or for good stewardship fades away—it’s simply good.

How do we retain our talent when everyone is doing CSR?

CSR continues to morph from add-on programs into a more integral part of business plans. Then lies the question, if every company has a CSR program, how on earth will your company be able to reap the
benefits of employee loyalty? 

Answer: Involve your employees to the best of their abilities.

Linkedin Influencer Colin Shaw writes wisely on the subject, asserting that “Being genuine and appropriate is the best way to brand using social responsibility as a platform. In other words, just slapping any old socially responsible program on your brand doesn’t work as well as one that “fits” your brand. Nielsen learned the most successful companies branding on social responsibility identified a social cause internally they felt important to their organization and matched it to what consumers expect from them based on their product or service.” 

If it takes an overhaul of your CSR model, it’ll probably be worth it to make sure your employees feel like their talents are being used for their social passions. (Here’s a source for building a CSR plan to best utilize your employees’ talents.) Just remember when moving forward to build your plan on a foundation of helping others rather than helping yourself.

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