November 14, 2019

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Why Strong CSR Programs Don’t Always Lead to Successful Corporate Citizenship

Stakeholders (especially employees) know when a leader’s actions align with his words and when a company is genuinely transforming toward great corporate citizenship.

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By Tom Knowlton and Nadia Gomes, TCC Group

Many companies are developing compelling citizenship programs that are generating significant social impact while achieving business goals. Despite these efforts, the same companies are still not always identified as leading corporate citizens. 

For example, while Walmart's sustainability platform is consistently applauded and the company’s foundation is recognized as one of the largest by total giving, the company isn’t consistently recognized as being in the top tier of corporate citizenship.

Beyond a Strong Portfolio of CSR Programs

Companies that consistently set the bar as top-ranking corporate citizens understand that successful citizenship requires more than a strong portfolio of programs. The best not only have high impact programs that fall within a cohesive citizenship strategy and are supported by an integrated structure, but most importantly, their leaders are genuinely committed and their culture aligns with their values. Engaged leadership and corporate culture serve to drive the process as “accelerators," while an integrated structure and effective strategy serve as “fundamentals.”

AT TCC Group, a consulting firm focused on corporate citizenship and social impact issues, we see the combined elements of leadership, culture, integration, and strategy as the framework for successful corporate citizenship, as illustrated in the figure below.

culture and citizenshipWhen companies approach us to help develop their corporate citizenship strategy and programs, the focus of the initial inquiry is often about creating a “signature program” that will deliver shared value for the community and the company. What is important to clarify is that building a signature program should be a secondary priority behind the core elements in the framework. 

While an integrated structure, citizenship strategy and relevant programs serve as fundamental building blocks, leadership and culture must be established in order for citizenship efforts to truly accelerate and be sustained.

When leaders aren’t engaged and knowledgeable about corporate citizenship and how their particular business fits within its social and environmental landscape, program strategy tends to have limited life and impact. Stakeholders (especially employees) know when a leader’s actions align with his words and when a company is genuinely transforming toward great corporate citizenship. 

Low Employee Engagement: A Call for Engaged Leaders 

How can we tell when engaged leadership is not only present, but strong, within a company?  Employee engagement is the most important indicator of strong leadership – do the employees feel signature programsgood about their work? Are they proud of their company? And do the company’s values drive actions and decision-making across all levels?  

According to the latest surveys from Gallup and Towers Perrin, employee engagement continues to present a challenge for top companies. Despite everything that is written, researched and advocated, a recent Gallup poll noted: “71 percent of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ in their work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and are less likely to be productive.”

Of course, great citizenship programs alone won’t fix this; truly successful corporate citizens incorporate all elements of the framework, and are rooted in engaged leadership that results in engaged employees. Citizenship programs launched without this leadership face the risk of limited impact and sustainability.

What Should a CSR Professional Do? 

First, assess your situation. Look beyond your programs and identify your strengths and weaknesses in the other areas as well: level of leadership engagement, existing culture, and integrated structure. Ask these critical questions:

The Accelerators:

  • Engaged Leadership – Do leaders understand the importance of corporate citizenship?  What is the company’s current approach?  Who are the champions within the company?
  • Existing Culture – Does the company’s culture reflect its values? Are there areas/regions/lines of business that are stronger or weaker?

The Fundamentals:

  • Integrated Structure – Are corporate citizenship issues reviewed and implemented with clear roles and shared accountability, or is it a separate, siloed activity?
  • Citizenship Strategy and Program Portfolio– Are programs aligned with the other core business components, and is there a clear link between program goals and stakeholder expectations? Is there a comprehensive understanding of both the expected social and business value from programs?  What opportunities exist to build stronger programs?

Next, develop an approach that aligns the core components of an effective corporate citizenship employee engagementstrategy – address both the fundamentals and the accelerators. In our experience, this often involves actively communicating with, educating, and engaging senior leaders throughout the company.

At Wells Fargo, for example, as part of a recent strategic planning process, the Community Relations team recognized the need to continuously educate and engage with senior leaders and the different business lines across the country. The result: an integration process that would increase ongoing engagement with senior leaders and educate them about their roles in supporting and leveraging the company’s corporate citizenship work. [More to come in a future post.]

While the importance of leadership engagement can be a powerful catalyst for citizenship success, the four framework elements laid out above play an important role in tandem. Alone, they are unsustainable.

Over the next few weeks, we will explore each element individually, examining its significance for corporate citizenship through the lens of corporations and analyzing how a systemic strategy can help boost employee engagement and your citizenship goals.

About the Authors:

Thomas W. Knowlton, partner and director of the Corporate Practice at TCC Group, has extensive experience in the field of corporate citizenship. Since joining TCC Group, Knowlton has worked with a number of corporate clients, primarily leading strategic planning projects and developing high impact programs and approaches that fully mobilize a company’s unique resources to provide significant social and business impact. 

Nadia Gomes is a senior consultant at TCC Group with extensive experience working with corporate clients on the development and implementation of corporate citizenship and philanthropic programs that align social impact with business goals. 

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

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