CSR – Where to start?

Q: My company wants to start a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative.  Where do you start CSR initiatives?

A: Done right, CSR is a systematic and strategic approach to business sustainability.  Note:  I will be using sustainability and CSR interchangeably.

The first questions to ask you and your company revolve around your company’s intent behind CSR, what’s driving it, and who is leading it. There is no wrong answers to these questions. The intent is to set the environment within which your efforts will be taking place.  The more aligned they are, the easier rolling out your CSR initiatives will be.

  • What is the intent of your CSR initiative? – To do good, to save money, to do the right thing, to get out of a sticky situation
  • What’s driving this initiatives? –  Cost savings, compliance, NGO pressure, supply chain demands (up or down stream), employee interest, natural disaster, legal issues, community issues?
  • Who is leading the charge? – you, your manager, the CEO, the board, a consultant, Bob the delivery guy, Mary in accounting?

The best CSR/Sustainability initiatives are embraced by senior leadership at the CEO and board level. It is seen as an essential business strategy and an opportunity for business sustainability through evolving value generation.  Often however, the C-Suite involvement comes after the fact, from inside organic growth or outside pressures.

Many fortune 1000s have “green” teams leading sustainability and CSR efforts. This is by far the leading method that I have seen.  CSR/Green/sustainability programs often start off as grass roots initiatives by passionate individuals or managers around a specific issue or cause. They enlist their co-workers and create “green” teams. They develop and organically grow within the company rising to the C-Suite level. At which point they have momentum, support, and concrete examples of the business strategy, opportunity, and impact of their efforts.

Going it alone, unless your are the CEO, can be like being Don Quixote fighting dragons. So form a team, build momentum and bring in management as allies. Find passion-minded colleagues and start taking initiative locally: perhaps it starts with cubicle recycling, energy use, or community involvement.

Have your team do some research and reading on the subject. My recommended reading list: (links open in separate window to Amazon.com)

When CSR starts at or reaches the CEO and senior leadership level then the game changes. Here CSR/Sustainability can be embedded in corporate strategy and philosophy.  The best CSR efforts come from combining a company’s core competencies with their values. (for more on this I suggest reading McElhaney)

When approached from a systems level, one of the best tools I use working with corporate leaders is the Sustainable Value Framework (created by Hart & Millstein adapted by Sengeexcerpt) which looks at CSR/Sustainability on two axis – time (today/tomorrow) and space (internal/external). This tool is very useful to look for opportunities, risks, and payoffs in addition to what is driving the efforts in order to know where and how to engage CSR and why you are doing it.

When you integrate business core competencies with business values into a framework of strategic sustainable value creation you end up with powerful CSR activities and sustainable business.

What about Specific CSR activities and suggestions?

Engage your stakeholders. A significant part of any CSR initiative involves engaging your stakeholders both internal and external.  They are perhaps your best source for  specific activities or opportunities – ask your own people, talk to your customers, vendors, community leaders – engage your stakeholders – they are a fountain of resources:

  • what do they want from you?
  • What do you want to provide?
  • What is your gift (besides money)/talent/resources that your company has in spades that can assist?
  • Who can you partner with?

Additional reading and research:

CSR is a process and the wave of the future for sustainable business.


Word of caution: If sustainability and CSR is seen as a fad and as a marketing ploy you have a disaster waiting to happen. When CSR is started at a marketing or branding level without the system-wide strategic involvement, the efforts have a tendency to become PR spin and “greenwash.” See my article on PR vs CSR. In this era of social media, the backlash can be swift and catastrophic – not only moral but to the viability and sustainability of the company as a whole.


Copyright ©2009 Matthew Rochte, Opportunity Sustainability℠ – Share with attribution

Opportunity Sustainability℠ is a Midwest-based sustainability and corporate responsibility consulting firm specializing in green innovation and seeing opportunities where others see burdens. Matthew Rochte LEED AP, an experienced, operations-based sustainability consultant, working with company management to navigate and realize the opportunities in taking their company green and growing sustainably.

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