The Rising Momentum of Corporate Social Responsibility

Corporate Social Responsibility

What is Corporate Social Responsibility? It's been part of our working landscape since the mid-twentieth century, but in recent years, these initiatives have quickly gained momentum, in response, in part, to the acceleration of climate change and other crises across the globe. On this episode of ProjectHR, Susan McPherson will explain why being socially responsible is part of a company's survival in today's economy. Here, you'll learn:

  • A brief history of corporate philanthropy;
  • The four types of corporate responsibility;
  • How companies benefit from being socially responsible; and
  • The shifts in technology, public mindset and current events that have positioned CSR as a critical part of a company's brand.
Corporate Social Responsibility

Susan McPherson

   Corporate Responsibility Expert

“A company must do more than seek strong profit margins for its success. Being socially responsible is part of survival in today's economy.”


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What Is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)?

  • Many terms are used when talking about these initiatives -- corporate social responsibility, sustainability, corporate citizenship, shared values -- but, at their core, they’re all about building a company that gives back more than it takes away.
  • Today, a company is often judged by how it supports its community, employees, and the global environment -- and not just on how it meets its bottom line.
  • “A company must do more than seek strong profit margins for its success. Being socially responsible is part of survival in today's economy.”


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The Evolution of Corporate Philanthropy

  • Historically, Europe has been ahead of the game in terms of environmental sustainability, but less so on the philanthropic front, primarily because many of the European countries have had a social safety net.
  • In the US, however, social responsibility has historically involved philanthropy.
  • That philanthropy began with faith-based institutions, and in certain times, from the federal government.
  • In the late 19th century, checkbook philanthropy became popular among wealthy Americans like Carnegie and Rockefeller, who would donate money to build a hospital, for example, in exchange for getting their name on the building. 
  • Today’s checkbook philanthropy is rooted in employee engagement, employee volunteerism, and partnerships with NGOs.

The Four Types of Corporate Responsibility

  • Corporate Responsibility initiatives may be centered on:
    • Philanthropy
    • Environmental conservation
    • Diversity, inclusion and labor practices
    • Community involvement

A Broader Company Footprint

  • Today, using manufacturing as an example, much of the work that is being done is being done offshore.
  • This means that a company’s footprint now extends past our borders, into Southeast Asia, or Sub-Saharan Africa, or to other spots around the globe -- now, what happens outside the borders of our own country may directly impact us and our businesses, so we have no choice but to think broader.
  • “We have to think about the people working in our supply chain as part of our community, meaning we have a responsibility to support those people and make sure that they're adequately paid and that they're not harmed in the process of manufacturing, the goods that we take advantage of day after day.”

Sustainability for the Future

  • Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
  • For instance, fossil fuels will not be around forever. So fossil fuel companies need to plan for how they will power the world when that fuel runs out.
  • It’s also about hiring a workforce with the future in mind, and training them for that future.
  • In short, it’s about having a long-term vision, and planning: while it may be more immediately expedient and less costly today to use packaging that harms the environment, it may be less expensive in the long run to use a more sustainable packaging method.

How Do Companies Benefit From Being Socially Responsible?

  • Millennials and Gen Z want to work for and buy from socially responsible companies.
  • Companies with diverse and inclusive management actually have better bottom lines. This country is diverse, and companies who reflect that diversity do better.
  • Social responsibility also makes a company more appealing to the best and brightest job seekers. 

Recent Shifts

  • Ms. McPherson wrote an article in Forbes: “Corporate Responsibility: What To Expect In 2020.”
  • In the last 10-15 years, the world was introduced to social media.
  • Companies and consumers now have a direct dialogue with each other.
  • More and more companies are sharing what they’re doing environmentally, socially, and philanthropically, via annual sustainability reports.
  • “We have a more knowledgeable public, we have a more active consumer, a more intelligent consumer, and last but not least, we have companies that are stepping up.”
  • Company leaders are also stepping up in a way they never have before. 

Information Generations

  • Not long ago, the public’s access to news was limited to daily newspapers and nightly newscasts, with very limited global information Today, we have on-demand access to global news, 24/7 and on a variety of devices. 
  • “When you have a more informed public, you also have a public that's going to be asking more questions and demanding answers.” 

Global Initiatives

  • Global companies have to abide by the Paris Climate Accord, even if the US federal government doesn’t.
  • The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals do a good job at providing guidelines for large companies and corporations, but not for small and mid-sized US businesses. The small businesses generally just aren’t as aware about global guides like this.
  • The Business Roundtable, made up of the CEOs of some of America’s biggest companies, made a statement in 2019 that basically, giving back to shareholders was no longer the primary concern of companies. Instead, the primary concerns should be, after investor paybacks: 
    • The climate
    • The environment 
    • The communities in which it operates.
  • “We’re living in a time where we need radical thinking. We need people trying and taking chances.”

Who Is Getting It Right?

  • Unilever. Under Paul Polman, they: 
  • Reduced plastic usage and packaging sizes;
  • Acquired Seventh Generation, a company whose mission is “to transform the world into a healthy, sustainable & equitable place for the next seven generations”;
  • Acquired Ben and Jerry’s, a well-known champion of human and civil rights.
  • No company is perfect -- there is no one, right way to perform CSR. Companies are free to pursue whatever social responsibility initiatives feel most appropriate for them as an organization, for their customers and for their communities.
  • Companies who are still not on board with CSR may face future extinction: people won’t work for them, people won’t buy from them, and for those not preparing their industries for the future may find their very products disappearing.
  • Companies also need to think about present and future investors. Investors are going to put their money into companies with long-term, sustainable futures.

McPherson Strategies

  • McPherson Strategies is not a sustainability advisor, rather a communications consultancy designed to help companies spread the good news about all the good they are doing to their investors, employees, customers, or the public at large.
  • In a corporation, they’ll work with the people in marketing and corporate responsibility.
  • They work with NGOs, as well as Fortune 500 companies and major nonprofits.

Susan McPherson Backstory

  • B.A. in History and Political Science from University at Albany, SUNY 
  • Studied Broadcast Journalism at Boston University 
  • Began her career as a researcher at USA Today
  • Served as Vice President of Global Events and then, of CSR Services at PR Newswire
  • Ms. McPherson is the founder and CEO of McPherson Strategies, a communications consultancy focusing on the intersection between brands and social impact. 
  • She is also a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company and Forbes.


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