Ushering in a New Era of CSR

Common Impact “Pro Bono Perspectives Podcast” with Danielle Holly

The corporate mandate has changed, and companies must focus on stakeholder – not shareholder – capitalism. But what does this look like in companies across industries and sectors?

ACCP CEO Carolyn Berkowitz recently joined Common Impact’s Danielle Holly for an episode of the organization’s podcast, “Pro Bono Perspectives,” to discuss the changing landscape of Corporate Social Responsibility. Below is an overview summary of what was discussed.

DH: ACCP continues to lean into the pandemic response, the racial justice mandate, and supporting companies’ roles in those. In the study you released earlier this year, “The Impact of COVID-19 and Racial Justice Movement on CSR,” 64% of CSR leaders cite racial justice as a new long-term corporate social responsibility priority, and 45% say they have increased funding. But there is a criticism out there that companies are not translating their narrative into action.

What are some of the challenges that CSR professionals are tackling, and where have you seen the progress?

CB: 85% of companies say they are doing something different to address racial justice. Some are sticking with their funding priority areas but doing so with a racial equity lens. Some partner and integrate much more closely with their DEI or HR department and support internal activities like upskilling, recruiting, or internal training. Others are directly supporting the movement.

The DEI focus is woven throughout companies in their work, and I think the change is real. It is THE biggest change I’ve seen in my career. However, the issues are entrenched, and there are no quick fixes. It’s a journey. If companies were to move too quickly, they might do more harm than good. Companies shouldn’t just throw resources at something without having an in-depth understanding of the underlying causes of a problem.

I don’t think it’s an excuse – I think it’s a reality.

Of the almost $50 billion committed by companies to racial justice initiatives, 90% (~$45 billion) of that money is not philanthropic. It is business investments or lending opportunities, coming from a handful of companies, primarily financial services companies. Much of the ~$4 billion that’s been pledged in corporate donations are multi-year grants in education, workforce development, criminal justice, and/or human rights, using funds to work more equitably in those spaces. The quality and impact of those pledges, gifts, and multi-year grants will improve as the community players, and the corporations work and learn together.

DH: So tell us more about the challenges facing CSR right now.

The most significant challenge for us is unlearning what this young profession has learned about itself – that we are different. Connecting our community work to the business context requires different strategies; however, there is much for CSR to learn from leaders in the philanthropy sector who have authentically engaged in racial equity work for much longer. I see glimmers that the corporate social impact field is listening and tapping into the experiences and practices that forward-leaning foundations and community-based organizations share.

Previously, a sizable portion of corporate giving has funded big, well-known, often national organizations that have a big brand and are seemingly “risk-free.” While I don’t want to generalize, we are becoming more aware that these organizations aren’t necessarily the folks doing the best work in racial equity or systems change. Nor are these organizations generally led by people of color, although we’re seeing that change as some long-term nonprofit executives transition to retirement.

We’ve also learned our sector has not disaggregated data to understand better the specific gaps – mostly racial gaps – in funding and impact.  Unless we deliberately focus on closing the gaps in progress, we are continuing to resource inequity. We’ve got to start asking and answering new and different questions.

One issue CSR faces is being held back by fear – of making a mistake, saying the wrong thing, or with companies – alienating customers who have varied political views or are from very different communities. What is your advice to those individuals and institutions hampered by that justifiable fear?

I believe the best leaders are transparent leaders. I trust a leader who learns more than I trust a leader who says, “I’ve been right all along.” Most of us do, and yet social media can be insidious. But a few things are working in our favor to change things, including that the mainstream market – employees, customers, and investors – demand these changes, and boards are holding companies accountable. So companies have to act.

I know you have just launched a survey to get to the question of equity in the CSR profession and understand the demographics of those working on their teams and with their community partners. What are you hoping to find with the results of that survey?

It has always been a vision of mine and ACCP’s to diversify the corporate social responsibility profession for the future and make the field more inclusive. There is no way to address the complicated dynamics of our time without having representative, inclusive, and equitable corporations and departments doing that work. So our survey aims to look at:

  • What are the facts about the composition in the field?
  • What are the lived experiences of people of color working in CSR departments inside companies and the unique challenges or opportunities they might be experiencing?
  • What are the recruiting dynamics and practices that diversify CSR and ESG teams, and what approaches to professional development and growth are companies taking?
  • What issues get in the way of a CSR team’s ability to impact equity through their work?
  • What correlations – now and over time – will shed light to help us all better serve the mission of equity in the profession?

So what comes next? What do the CSR strategies of tomorrow need to look like?

Three things immediately come to mind:

  1. CSR strategies need to evolve and integrate more broadly with ESG.
  2. Strategies need to be much more inclusive of different voices and focus on creating lasting equitable change. It’s the right thing to do, and it will change the environment for businesses and augment their success.
  3. Social responsibility needs to be infused into everyone’s work across the company – all lines of business and central corporate functions – not just in CSR or the Foundation.

What drives you in this work and with these considerable challenges ahead of us?

My inspiration often comes from talking with people – whether it’s staff members, stakeholders, or leaders like you on this podcast – about big ideas, what’s possible and how together we achieve success. I think about what our members struggle with inside their companies and in their day-to-day work and how ACCP can help them. Every day, I take stock and think about what I will take away from today, what I feel good about, and what I can learn. And that helps guide my next move, my next conversation, my next day.

Click here to listen to the full podcast.