February 26, 2020

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Seeing CSR Differently: How CSR Natives Can Help You Drive Impact & Stimulate Innovation

CSR Natives are now inside the building with many more flowing into the workplace every day.


By Craig Bida, Marketing and Communications Strategist

Ask any CEO: It’s a corporate social responsibility (CSR) jungle out there.

C-suite leaders know just how hard it is not only to compete for attention in a marketplace full of purpose-driven branding but also to meet amped-up expectations of delivering significant societal and environmental impact.

Oh, and all that while simultaneously delivering breakthrough business results.

At the same time, it’s becoming increasingly clear that success or failure in CSR today has a lot to do with how well companies engage and enable their people. Without broad commitment by employees, widespread embrace of CSR as a source of innovation and advantage, and disciplined execution organization-wide, a company’s aspirations to become a responsible citizen will often remain just that.

Overcoming Traditions

When it comes to delivering meaningful results then, many companies are unfortunately stalling out.

They’re struggling to overcome compliance-driven CSR structures that track participation in giving campaigns, tally and re-tally employee volunteer hours, engineer forced-fun participation at company-wide events, and drive non-disruptive, cost-savings focused sustainability efforts.

Let’s be real: Although well intentioned, much of this activity doesn’t drive significant impact, deliver meaningful innovation or dramatically increase employee satisfaction.

To unlock real change, companies must seek more effective ways to tap into their employees’ unique knowledge millennials focus on CSR careersand passion. This means moving beyond uninspired, go-through-the-motions strategies and programs. Episodic, exception-to-the-norm approaches like annual days of service or office recycling drives are the exact opposite of always-on, deeply-embedded ways to participate that young employees in particular are demanding.

Earning a Paycheck: Jobs vs. Careers

Imagine a world in which work is a place not just to build a career or extract a paycheck, but a meaningful opportunity to live and breathe your values—every day. Now you’re getting it.

Unfortunately, many C-suite leaders simply don’t understand this new mindset.

They’re overlooking—even alienating—a powerful, human capital asset right under their noses: A group that I like to call “CSR Natives” – younger, CSR-savvy Millennials typically in the early stages of their careers who see CSR fundamentally differently.

Having come of age during a time when increased societal expectations of companies mainstreamed to the norm, CSR Natives simply don’t know a pre-CSR world. As such, they effortlessly grasp and exploit its transformative business and societal potential and are uniquely equipped to help companies navigate today’s always-on, radically transparent, purpose-driven marketplace.

One thing is clear: They want where they work and what they believe to line up. Research shows repeatedly almost 80 percent of Millennials take a company’s CSR vision and commitments seriously into account when deciding where to work.

CSR Natives: A Different Kind of Marketplace

That’s because CSR Natives grew up in a marketplace shaped by environmental and social issues. They collected soup labels for Campbell's Labels for Education program (started in 1973), bought values-driven products like Ben & Jerry's Rainforest Crunch (launched in 1989), used efficient ENERGY STAR appliances (started in 1992), were exposed from an early age to now-iconic programs like Ronald McDonald House Charities (begun in 1984) and Box Tops for Education (launched in 1996), and grew up with mandatory recycling (starting in the 1980s).

It’s worth recalling amidst today’s widespread CSR euphoria that as recently as 1993, over one-third of consumers thought companies should NOT address causes and issues in their marketing. Today, of course, this has dramatically shifted, with research showing 93 percent of consumers expect companies to do way more than just make profits.

CSR Natives have been heavily influenced by, and helped to propel, this societal transformation.

Leveraging Passion, Building Purposeful Brands

What’s critical for C-suite leaders to understand then is these CSR Natives are now inside the building, with many more flowing into the workplace every day. They’re bringing with them not only a whole new set of beliefs about the role of business in society, but also an expectation they will personally play a part in making change happen.

Forget about IBM, GE and P&G—CSR Natives’ corporate icons are TOMS, Warby Parker and Patagonia—companies that loudly transmit their values and drive disruptive, positive change. If you are serious about CSR Natives are in the buildingembedding CSR within your company as a core business strategy, go at it by unlocking the power—and passion—of your people. Here’s how:

1. Engage: Avoid the temptation to reflexively entrust CSR to title-heavy, innovation-light senior leaders who’ve been gathering dust for decades. Instead, get people at all levels involved and problem solving — especially your CSR Natives — as invested CSR partners and collaborators. Some of the best ideas for leveraging CSR as a business driver are often out in the company — on the front lines, among younger and mid-level employees.

2. Let it go: Be prepared to give up ownership and control. Bring in new voices to critical CSR discussions, invite (and then act on) disruptive ideas and challenge employees to define the part they want to play in delivering the company’s societal and environmental commitments. Follow the example of a CEO I met recently who’s been at the helm of a well-known organization for 25 years. He’s invited a group of twenty-something CSR Natives to have a voice in critical decisions impacting the future of the enterprise and is leveraging their thinking to transform how the organization fulfills its mission. If a veteran leader of a nearly century-old organization can be a fire-breathing disruptor, so can you.

3. Enable: Realistically assess the barriers that exist — overt or otherwise — to participation and innovation, especially for junior employees. Identify ways to foster increased connectivity and collaboration with your CSR Natives. Start simply by retooling existing engagement channels. Take the example of a leading financial services company that tapped into an existing young professionals organization, engaging this self-directed group of young leaders within the company to put CSR on their agenda.

The results? A win-win, with employees feeling more engaged and respected, and the company harvesting valuable ideas on harnessing CSR investments to drive the business.

Whatever you do, get moving.

As CSR mainstreams as a core business strategy and your competitors get on board, one thing is clear: If you’re not aggressively deconstructing your value chain to drive efficiencies, reducing your impacts and stimulating CSR-driven innovation, while also harnessing the full range of your assets to solve pressing, relevant societal issues, you’re going to be left behind.

The good news: Even if you don’t have all this figured out, you’ve probably got some really smart people who can. Reach down into your organization. Find your CSR Natives. Tap into their passions. Enable them. Then step back and watch them transform your company.

About the Author:

Craig Bida is a marketing and communications strategist with deep expertise creating economic and social value for leading brands. He has over 20 years of multi-sector experience including 11 years at Procter & Gamble and almost four years as EVP of Corporate Social Responsibility/Social Impact at Cone Communications, a leading marketing and public relations agency. Connect with him @craigbida.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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