CSR TALKS: Champions, Catalysts and Components Behind 10 Successful CSR Programs

Posted by on May 13, 2015 in Corporate Citizenship, Great Companies | Comments Off on CSR TALKS: Champions, Catalysts and Components Behind 10 Successful CSR Programs

CSR TALKS: Champions, Catalysts and Components Behind 10 Successful CSR Programs

“To those whom much is given, much is expected.”

I borrowed this quote from Bill Gates, who used it in his presentation to Harvard graduates in 2007. As I understand, he borrowed it from an anonymous source in the King James Version of the Bible. Recently, one of the company leaders I interviewed during my corporate social responsibility (CSR) research referred to this quote as the premise for establishing their CSR program. Turns out, this philosophy drives many companies to do the same.

Whether you have an established CSR program you wish to focus or evolve into something more strategic, or are starting from scratch and need guidance, let me take you on a journey. Over the last year, I have spent time with 10 companies and their leaders who told me their CSR stories (#csrtalks) so I could share them with you.

The companies I interviewed represent a range of industries, sizes and perspectives. After all, CSR isn’t just a “big company” or “green company” thing. It is for any organization wishing to engage internal and external stakeholders around a shared mission related to business success and social impact.

Take, for example, a state-specific health insurer. Unlike the majority of the companies I spoke with, they had a CEO who was not initially interested in the concept of social responsibility or community relations. Because of controversies surrounding the healthcare industry, this CEO chose not to be in the public eye. Plus, his only social responsibility role models were Ben and Jerry, who in his mind were more hippies than strategic businessmen. Boy was he wrong! It wasn’t until years of thoughtful pressure from internal public relations leadership and a change in guard at the executive level that their mindset turned around. Armed with an inspired leader, engaged drivers and years of pent-up desire, the organization built a CSR program with incredible results.

Let’s get started by hearing more about how they got started.


My first question was always, “Tell me about your corporate social responsibility program.” Interestingly, some stopped me right there, saying they didn’t refer to it as a “program” per se, rather a way of doing business. Others noted it wasn’t CSR, but community relations or plain ol’ social responsibility. A few were small or medium-sized businesses and didn’t think of themselves as a “corporate” anything. For some, the program was strategically tied back to their mission and focus areas of the business. Others described their programs more in the context of a culture where employees feel engaged by having an opportunity to give back to the communities where they live and work.

Employee engagement continued to resurface as a common thread. Every company noted employee engagement as a key component of their program. Some companies offer paid time off for volunteering and community (board) leadership roles; one organization even shares opportunities via an internal newsletter so employees can get involved according to their own personal passions. Since volunteerism is so personal, many companies expressed a challenge in balancing business strategy with personal, and in some cases regional, interests. We’ll revisit challenges in a future chapter.

One company doesn’t have a defined personal time off policy for volunteerism because the leadership feels it restricts people. Instead, at the manager’s discretion, employees can take the necessary time off as long as it doesn’t negatively impact their work.

Some of these companies foster a philanthropic spirit that includes both giving of time and money. But we’re not talking about writing a check or throwing money at a social problem. We’re talking about companies making strategic investments in the community where the return is social impact and appreciative staff.

Nearly half of the companies manage corporate giving through a foundation. The others make donations in the form of in-kind products or services, financial contributions or social impact sponsorships. In all cases, giving was tied back to the company’s strategy, mission or established impact areas.

One smaller company that lacks the resources to establish or manage a robust giving program partnered with United Way who provided the infrastructure for an employee-giving program and enabled an employer-matching program for collective impact.

Defining how a company spends its time and money for the greater good is clearly a good place to start. However, several companies went one step further by investing in product development and process improvements to not just solve economic, environmental or social problems, but prevent them. By offering innovative solutions designed to help customers achieve sustainability goals, these companies benefited from great social impact and positive business results.


When talking about how they got started with their corporate social responsibility program (aka culture or way of doing business), the companies I spoke with fell into one of two categories.

1) From Day One: These programs started with the company and have been in place in some form ever since. The founder formed the company with social responsibility in mind and it’s a pillar of the organizational ethos.

2) CSR 2.0: These companies either had no CSR program or it was less-than-great, so they brought in a dedicated resource to develop and drive the program. With a new or true champion on board, these programs became focused, strategic and demonstrated impact.

All of these companies also have one thing in common: a passionate leader or champion. There is the president who grew up in the community where they were fortunate enough to build a business and wanted to give back; the general manager who was raised in a family where volunteering or giving back was automatic; another entrepreneur who became frustrated when a former employer didn’t invest in the community and made it a priority when starting his own business. For those leaders who joined an established business, they were instrumental in refocusing the company’s social responsibility efforts.

In addition to leadership, these companies noted other key components for a successful CSR program:

  • Establish pillars or impact areas tied to the overall mission.
  • Align with business goals.
  • Dedicate human and financial resources.
  • Shift the mindset from corporate philanthropy or environmental advocacy to true corporate social responsibility.
  • Expand to be representative of company distribution, going beyond a “headquarters initiative” to include regional offices and field staff.
  • Engage additional influencers, drivers and ambassadors.

In Part 2, we’ll recognize the important role other influencers, drivers – and unfortunately even challengers – play in the scope of a CSR program and the steps these companies took to achieve success.

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