Carolyn Berkowitz and Adapting in the CSR Field

ACCP Staff

ACCP President and CEO Carolyn Berkowitz recently appeared on Carol Cone’s Purpose 360 podcast to provide advice and insights relevant to the current state of CSR and ESG.

Over several blog posts, we highlight some of the discussion between Carolyn and Carol that didn’t make it into the final podcast. Our previous blogs in the series focused on the role and function of social responsibility within a company, the importance of racial equity in the field, and Carolyn’s advice to companies and those in the corporate social impact space.

This post offers insights into adapting to the current economic and political environment.

What advice would you give to organizations facing the current economic challenges? How can organizations create the same amount of internal engagement with tighter resources?

Start by making the business case at every chance you get. We recently joined forces with our partners from CECP and Points of Light and published an op/ed in HBR that clearly outlines why it is foolish to cut back on this work in a down economy. Download it and share it up the chain in your company.

That said, reducing headcount and budget is threatening our ability to maintain our levels of engagement and impact. If there are fewer people and tighter budgets, your success will suffer. Either the quality of your work will decline, or you and your teammates will quickly burn out and turnover. We’re seeing that now.

There are ways to minimize some of the consequences.

CSR teams need to re-set expectations so those who determine your resources understand the impact of their choices. One of my board members did just that. She very directly approached her leader about what cuts mean. “I can cut the budget, but what current programs are you OK without?” (and then presented choices). When the consequences of resource constraints were fully understood, her team fared well. Her budget remained flat. But others are convinced that they can’t stop doing anything.

I’m not a fan of just working harder or longer. It is happening all over our profession, and the result is a level of burnout that I’ve never seen before.

“One strategy is to extend capacity with a robust internal network. Comcast is a great example. They’ve created a Community of Practice for hundreds around the company with grantmaking, employee engagement, government affairs, and other responsibilities as a part of their job. The members of this community include people at HQ and in their local and regional offices. The Impact and Inclusion team provides training and a forum for sharing best practices once per quarter. As a result, they have more informed arms and legs in local communities and business lines.”

Sage Foundation also has a robust Ambassadors network. They’ve hired ACCP to deliver a 6-part training over a year to their ambassador network. Ambassadors want to better understand the intricacies of CSR work and speak to its impact.

How and why should a company choose to take a stand on social issues?

The rule of thumb is to take a public stance when it strengthens a company’s bond with its customers and employees and promotes shared values. 

I encourage companies to steer clear of “woke washing” – performative activism and advocacy for a social cause through marketing while knowingly harming their communities and customers, e.g., promoting inclusion and equity while funding candidates who are instigating voting legislation that limits access to the polls.

Know your stakeholders -consumers, employees, communities, and regulators- and respond to their priorities if it is authentic for your company. This is where CSR can be extremely helpful in building partnerships with community and advocacy organizations.

Don’t just get on the bandwagon. Pick and choose what matters most.

Finally, materiality assessment is critically important in helping companies decide what is most important and where they can have the greatest impact.

The best example I can think of is Dick’s Sporting Goods which stopped selling assault weapons and ammunition. This decision was not without risk. The company gave up revenue with a plan to replace it over time. It was short-term pain for long-term gain, and the move still differentiates them in the retail market.

Another good example is New York Life advocating for gun control. Given that violence is a leading cause of death for tweens and teens and they are a life insurance company, the advocacy is aligned with the business.

What advice do you have for a company looking to communicate its stance on those controversial issues?

Devote time and resources to understanding the issue and its link to the company’s values.

Be prepared to communicate your “Why” publicly and authentically.

Show your commitment throughout the year in ways large and small and take your own medicine.

Use senior voices to get the message out – not exclusively, but consistently. Why does the CEO believe in this?

Consider your track record on this issue. However, resist extensive communications until you have authentic results. Ensure that no part of the business is doing or speaking something antithetical – either causing harm or not aligning. Root out the hypocrisy before you speak out; otherwise, you are vulnerable to criticism. If your stand is in response to bad press or behavior your company is committing to change, say so. But if you say so, you must stick with your commitment.

Consider successful relationships with existing community partners who successfully address the issue. They can lend credibility to the company’s voice. 

Finally, report on the company’s actions and progress at regular intervals throughout the year and beyond.

Carol Cone On Purpose released research in Fall 2022 called Purpose Under Pressure that highlighted the importance of purpose for employees today. With economic headwinds, how do you anticipate the activation of purpose to be impacted?

70% of U.S. CEOs acknowledge that ESG improves financial performance, up from 37% just last year, per a recent KPMG survey. Yet 59% of CEOs said they planned to pause or reconsider their ESG efforts amid economic headwinds. So, I don’t think resources will increase – and may very well decrease. This is very short-sighted.

ACCP along with two of our partners (CECP and Points of Light) wrote an op/ed that was published in January in Harvard Business Review addressing this issue and why it makes business sense for leaders to maintain their commitments.

What advice do you have for bringing the CSR and purpose function closer to the center of the company?

ALWAYS connect to the business and the strategy. No project or communication should leave out that connection. It is how you are most relevant.

Build champions all around the business and staff groups who will spread the word about the value of your work and how it contributes to attaining its goals.

Partner closely with HR to include information about purpose programs in the recruiting and onboarding process and to include a question about CSR in the annual employee engagement survey.

Provide direction and then let employees weave purpose into their roles.

Use both push and pull strategies. Leverage employee sentiment in engaging leaders to present and leadership and all-hands meetings.

Stick with it because it won’t happen overnight.

2022 was a year when purpose became even more controversial in the political landscape, with terms like “woke capitalism” being used. How do you see this impacting companies in 2023?

It is unfortunate that doing work that strengthens a company’s financial value and the world around them would become a lightning rod, but such are the times.

ESG will remain important, regardless of the red-state politicians who are divesting.  All other stakeholders will continue to judge ESG performance when deciding to become or remain an employee, invest in your company, buy your products, or protest your practices.

Regulations are changing. The SEC is now working on new disclosure rules, and the EU has already passed them. Beginning in 2024, you will be required to report your ESG practices and outcomes.

One of our member companies said “We just don’t call it ESG” when speaking to the public. People want to know your company is doing good work in communities and doing it well. Use the term “ESG” in business forums and with regulators and investors but consider using other language elsewhere.

My biggest worry is that those companies, CEOs, or CFOs who had begun to commit to the work but weren’t “all in” will use this as an excuse to stop doing good work. The danger is that they now will have an out (if regulations aren’t enacted or change based on political leadership), but good leaders know that compliance is not the only reason this work is important.

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