Exploring Corporate Social Responsibility

In September, Sarah Cahan, a senior insights supervisor with Cone Communications’ Research and Insights team, wrote some interesting observations about consumers, companies, charitable causes, and the impact perception gap in the world of CSR.

CSR is Corporate Social Responsibility, aka “cause marketing,” where companies and charities partner to create opportunities that allow consumers to feel good, practice some good, and generate some corporate goodwill in the process.

Companies donated $5 billion to charities in 2012; when in-kind contributions are added, the total rises to nearly $19 billion. That’s roughly $52 million every day.

But the consumers who buy what the companies sell are, well, skeptical:  only 1 in 5 believe that companies are making a significant and constructive impact on social issues.

And while nearly 9 in 10 shoppers say they feel a responsibility to buy products that they think are environmentally and socially responsible, only 27 percent actually think they are having any significant impact through this buying.

Cone calls this mismatch the Impact Perception Gap, and says that CSR programs must go beyond the purpose to focus on proof of progress, an essential step to closing the gap.

Cahan offers companies five ways to build and communicate CSR for greatest impact.  In reading these five, it strikes me that charities and nonprofits can benefit from the same lessons:

  1. Focus on an issue material to your business. Choose a cause or issue where your corporate knowledge, intellectual capital, and resources can be best leveraged. If you’re a nonprofit, choose corporate partners whose knowledge, workforce, and philosophy of philanthropy most closely fits your own.
  2. Choose your partners wisely. Pick charities that have both infrastructure and organizational framework, so that they can deliver on what they promise. Their work “on the ground,” in “real time,” brings credibility to the partnership.
  3. Track your progress every step of the way. This means every day, using methods that make sense to the donors and the beneficiaries. The best charities know where they started, and know when they’ve gotten to the end. By tracking every day, every step, you can see when things start to wobble.
  4. Ensure your stakeholders have a job to do: Whether it’s employees doing a day of volunteering or consumers liking your cause on Facebook, or a corporate committee that determines where the volunteer hours and charitable dollars will be invested—they need to play a meaningful part to feel connected.
  5. Communicate your program and progress in relevant terms. Be brief, be specific, and be clear about outcomes achieved. Tell stories about your success that are personally relevant to your stakeholders to help them strengthen their resolve to support your efforts.

You can read more about closing the impact perception gap and other corporate social responsibility issues at:  http://www.csrwire.com/blog/posts/1037-show-me-the-impact-5-ways-to-close-the-perception-gap