This is happening more often as companies realize they need ongoing CSR efforts. Fortunately, sustainability pros are made, not born. You can start to become one by following some straightforward guidelines and, if you're like the dozens of executives we've worked with who were pulled off their expected tracks to build a better world, you'll probably find unexpected gratification.
In CSR, like in most things, there are steps to getting started and doing it right.
1. Sell it up.
CSR engagement has to start at the top. The good news is that 93% of the CEOs in the UN Global Compact/Accenture 2010 CEO Study "see sustainability as important to their company's future success." Additionally, "96% of CEOs believe that sustainability issues should be fully integrated into the strategy and operations of a company (up from 72% in 2007)."
So, for the most part, C-suite executives understand the need for CSR. It's still essential to sell up initiatives as they develop. With CSR, the C-suite needs more check-in than normal. Make it one on one, and then put chiefs in the center of team activities. If the CEO isn't the sponsor, s/he needs continuous reports on how the team's efforts are benefiting the company.
2. Build the knowledge base.
For most companies, CSR is one big blank slate. Where do you start?
Here's a recommendation: Get certified training. For example, the Centre for Sustainability and Excellence (CSE) offers interactive workshops, certified to international standards, that can help you define the scope of CSR as it relates to your business.
Once you have some CSR guardrails for your business, you need to set a baseline. What impact does your business have on people and the environment? There are a number of professional organizations that can assess your company's environmental impact and social policies. For example, an assessment of Starbucks might start with its retail stores' environmental impact (post-consumer cups, recycling, water and energy usage) but will also consider the human impact (living wage pricing with farmer partners, health care benefits and stock for part-time workers).
3. Write a business strategy (and publish it internally).
Without a business case, CSR becomes an event, not a sustainable competitive advantage. To build a case, look at how the CSR initiatives will deliver value to the company both tangibly and intangibly.
Most companies look at CSR as one-dimensional: cost-savings. "We are good corporate citizens because we reduced our plants' waste streams and saved money in the process." That's the place to start; the problem is that it is also where most companies stop.
The real opportunity lies in developing strategies that move the firm beyond risk mitigation and cost savings to revenue generation. A true CSR strategy focuses on specific competitive advantages. Simply identifying them opens vision and creativity; you find new opportunities and make different decisions.
4. Get it right inside.
"Actions speak louder than words" rings true whether a campaign is designed to engage employees, customers or consumers. Whatever you do, make sure that you are actually creating and measuring progress before the company starts talking about it. The value of transparency cannot be overstated in a world where information is so readily available at one's fingertips and a single individual can reach a global audience with a few keystrokes. Internal efficiencies mark the easiest practices for detractors to take apart when the company oversells.
5. Effect change outside.
For most companies, all the careful CSR planning ends up producing an annual CSR report and a sustainability page on the website. Period.
That's just the start if you're serious about CSR creating real marketplace value for the company. While communication is critical, this is about strategy -- translating new practices into new revenue streams.
Ask your execution partners some tough questions: How do the messaging platform and tactics align with the strategy to deliver revenue growth (direct tie to sales)? What systems are in place to measure both the tangible and intangible benefits? It is easy to see the cost savings as they are implemented; it takes more forethought when it comes to quantifying external efforts.
Companies entering CSR get one chance to make a good impression. There are learnable best practices and many organizations that teach them. If your company doesn't have a CSR lead, consider stepping into the role. There is no greater opportunity to drive value for the business and personal satisfaction by doing something good.