Integrating CSR and Building CEO Support

Versaic Q&A with Jennifer C. Weston-Murphy, Corporate Leadership, CECP
Nov 22, 2016 2:30 PM ET
Campaign: Getting to Impact

The Versaic Blog

As a member of CECP’s Corporate Leadership team, Jennifer serves as a CSR expert for partner companies, advising business leaders on strategy, best practices, and research insights. She also manages strategy and execution of many of CECP’s events, as well as leads the growth of CECP's coalition of Fortune 500 CEOs and their companies. Jennifer began her tenure at CECP on the communications and marketing team, collaborating with companies to tell their stories of social impact and convening corporate leaders at CECP's signature events. 

Prior to joining CECP, Jennifer served as Communications & Development Manager at Primary Care Development Corporation, where she was responsible for communications, marketing, and fundraising initiatives. She has also worked as a non-profit fundraising consultant and as an associate at the Council on Foundations.  

Jennifer is pursuing her MBA at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at NYU. She is a cum laude graduate of Boston College where she studied Psychology and French. 

Versaic: What benefits and outcomes should a company expect from well-executed CSR initiatives? 

Jen: Companies with effective CSR initiatives will see both business and social benefits. Business benefits often include the creation of a talented workforce pipeline, sustainable supply chains, enhanced brand reputation, and engaged employees (resulting in lower turnover rates). It’s important to remember that successful CSR programs can also pave the way for entry into new markets and mitigate risk. Pfizer’s work in emerging markets through its Global Health Fellows program has helped the company gather key data into these local markets that may one day serve as a target market for essential services the company provides. Behaving in socially beneficial, value-aligned ways often pays off, as sports retailer REI demonstrated when it closed its stores on Black Friday in 2015 to encourage its employees and customers to live out the core pillar of its culture: exploring the great outdoors. Consumers rewarded the company, and REI recorded phenomenal sales heading into the 2015 holiday season. The company has plans to close its brick-and-mortar stores again this year on Black Friday.

Successful CSR efforts will also advance the development of solutions aimed at solving some of society’s biggest challenges. IBM’s P-TECH program tackles the shortage in the STEM workforce. The P-TECH program, which reinvents education by providing an integrated high school, college, and workplace learning experience in STEM, will expand to more than 60 schools across the country by the end of the year and graduate dozens of students from low-income communities. President Obama has encouraged the education community and private sector to use IBM's blueprint for replicating the P-TECH model.

CECP has a treasure trove of case studies highlighting effective initiatives like these. 

Versaic: How have companies’ CSR strategies evolved in recent years?

Jen: This is an important question because what we’ve observed in recent years is a transformation in how companies view CSR. First, there is a focus on integrating corporate community engagement throughout the business. There is a belief held by many CSR professionals that if they are successful in their jobs, then their roles, as currently structured, will start to disappear as a CSR-mindset will be embedded throughout the business, rather than sit in one department. Indeed, leading companies increasingly look to find ways to accelerate that integration. Unilever, a company renowned for its CSR practices, shared earlier this year that it disbanded its CSR department in order to better integrate these practices throughout the firm. Keith Weed, Unilever’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, said of this effort, “It was about embedding sustainability in every corner of the business, as opposed to just the corner where the CSR folk hung out.”

Companies also are increasingly looking at their core business operations through a longer time horizon, making their social innovation efforts more central to the success of the business. CECP recently found that one out of three companies report being “somewhat” or “highly active” in impact investing, a social investment strategy that focuses on long-term, sustainable change. It’s also the reason why CECP started the Strategic Investor Initiative (SII) in 2015. SII aims to change the conversation between CEOs and their boards, directors, and investors to one of sustained long-term corporate performance, instead of a laser-like focus on quarterly reporting and short-term earnings.

Versaic: What are some concrete ways companies can engage their CEO in the company’s CSR strategy? 

Jen: CSR leaders need to be able to clearly and consistently point to the business benefits of the company’s CSR efforts: in no place is this more important than in the CEO’s office. Reporting to the company’s board and holding fiduciary responsibility for its investors, CEOs want to understand how these initiatives boost the bottom line, while driving the company’s social good efforts. CECP published the report Measuring the Value to do just that—articulate the business case, from the CSR leader to the CEO and from the CEO to investors. While published a few years ago, the report’s core principles still hold true.

CEOs differ in their levels of readiness to participate in CSR efforts, so make sure you understand where your CEO is along the scale of engagement, his/her priorities in the near future, and where natural overlaps exist between those priorities and the CSR strategy. Share a menu of different projects your CEO can participate in, ranging from those that require a strong commitment to those that are easier to engage with. Making sure that there are as few barriers to participation as possible is key.

And when there is an opportunity for your CEO to hear the CSR perspectives of peer executives, you should encourage making those engagements a priority. CECP gathers more than 40 CEOs each year for its Board of Boards event to share insights and best practices to advance the business case for corporate community investment. It’s a chance for CEOs to learn from one another and to demonstrate their commitment to creating a better world through business. CEOs are also increasingly making their voices heard on the importance of the private sector’s role in tackling social challenges, such as this interview with Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Sørensen, who was placed at the top of HBR’s 2015 ranking of the best-performing CEOs in the world.

Versaic: What are some of the most powerful resources and tools CSR professionals can lever today to advance their programs?

Jen: Your peers are one of your best resources. CSR is about working on big social challenges—ones that can’t be solved alone. Whether internally at your firm or externally across companies or even sectors, it comes down to the people doing the work. You might ask, “Where can I begin to form those relationships and learn about best practice?” This is where CECP’s expertise and convening power come in. We bring together small and large groups of CSR professionals, facilitate one-on-one connections between them, and act as an information hub. We are not alone; other complementary organizations also exist, such as FSG, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and BSR.

In addition to people, data is crucial. To get a full understanding of where your company’s corporate societal investment efforts stand, you have to be specific: look at data particular to your industry, similar programs, and key social challenges that you are looking to tackle. CECP’s Giving in Numbers and Giving Around the Globe reports are great resources to refer to often, particularly in establishing benchmarks and understanding what firms are doing. 

With the right people and with the right data, one critical piece of the pie that remains is embracing creativity. With few solutions at the ready and a dearth of how-to guides for this ever-evolving field, being creative in your approach is essential. And it is a resource that you can tap into more easily than you think. Being creative with CSR is often about connecting dots that others do not see and sometimes taking an unconventional path to reach your goal. Meet with colleagues in other departments at your company who do not often work with your team. See strategic opportunities to grow programs with external partners in other industries who focus on the same issues.

The combination of people, data, and creative ideas is powerful. I have seen time and again across many companies that when done right CSR has the potential to unleash enormous social impact and improve the company’s business.

Versaic’s program management system is behind many of the best-known corporate philanthropy programs from some of the biggest brands around. To schedule a free demo click here.