How to Win Support for a CSR Agenda

Winning support for a CSR agenda is like running for political office. You can’t do it on your own.

You need to know where you stand in the polls. You need to be able to demonstrate a clear vision that resonates with people’s needs. And you need to be able to communicate it well.

First, know where you stand

Poring over polls (and polls of polls) is more than just navel-gazing. It helps politicians to know where they are strong and where they need to improve. As a CSR manager, you need to do the same.

CSR_Guide_Cover_ImageReaching out and asking stakeholders what their issues of concern are is like taking the political temperature. You will be able to use the insights you gather to prioritize focus areas.

You should then convene a process for how these issues might affect the business. This is best done with senior managers from across the business. (For more on materiality, see Junxion’s Guide to Corporate Social Responsibility.)

That will give you a strong sense of internal and external expectations and may well present some potential quick wins, giving you and your team a sense of momentum and proving to your colleagues the potential of CSR to deliver results.

Find your advocates

No one becomes a member of parliament without a lot of support from other people and it’s just the same with promoting a CSR agenda. You need your advocates. The question is where will you find them in the business?

Winning support for a CSR agenda is like running for office. You can’t do it on your own.

If you’re new to the business, or new to CSR, start by going for coffee. A lot. Invite people from other departments for a quick chat about your new role or your ambitions for CSR. Size up their interest by asking them if they think a stronger focus on CSR could support them in their goals. Get into the specifics: How can CSR support them? How can CSR help them achieve their goals? What specific issues do they see as opportunities or challenges to be overcome?

These informal conversations will get you known, provide you with some initial insights and generate social capital you can draw on later.

Who’s going to be your bestie?

Friends are great, but your bestie is special.

You might well find yours in the HR department. They will want to develop people’s skills and find creative ways people can do that. You’re running a CSR programme and are keen to get staff making a difference to the wider community. Potentially, you guys could be big buddies.

Together you could design partnerships with one or more charities, or networks of start-up businesses, where your colleagues can act as mentors and advisers. A ‘safe place’ where they can skill up, practice some behaviours and return to the fray refreshed and more able to take the next steps within your business.

It’s a win-win: your programme is essentially being sold into the business by HR, and your charity partners benefit. Meanwhile your HR colleagues have an interesting offer to make employees that will help them to improve their skills, which will also serve to deepen their engagement with the business. And as all HR people will tell you: engagement drives motivation and motivation drives performance.

Or it could be the marketing team that becomes your partner, because they’re interested to position your business as sustainable and responsible. Or the procurement team, because they see opportunities back down your supply chain. Whomever you find, an ally—a bestie—within your business can be a significant help accelerating your agenda.

The vision thing…

OK, so you’ve got a clearer sense of where you have advocates and friends. Perhaps you’ve been able to beef up an HR skills development programme by linking it with one of your charity partners. Time to get down to some serious business.

Someone needs to look at the big picture—the whole business—through the lens of sustainability.

Look at the business plan through a sustainability lens. Someone should be doing that and nobody else will if you don’t. You need to be considering how you can enhance the business plan through thinking about CSR or sustainability. There will be goals and targets in there. How can you accelerate progress towards them by adding in a sustainability dimension?

As the Global Reporting Initiative guidelines on sustainability reporting make clear, a sustainability strategy is not a one-size fits all thing: it has to pursue a purpose fit for your organization. In their explanation of what they recommend including in a sustainability strategy, they call for, “Prioritization of key sustainability topics as risks and opportunities according to their relevance for long-term organizational strategy [and] competitive position….”

In other words, CSR or sustainability have to be appropriate for your business model. So if you are in a ‘stack ‘em high, watch ‘em buy’ business, look at ways of saving money or doing something more efficiently. Perhaps you can change a process that’s been accepted as common business practice and never challenged before.

If on the other hand, you are in a more high-end business, where added value is appreciated by your customer base, then you can consider new products with sustainable features. Your customers are looking for new, quality products and services and price is less of an issue.

Make it a compelling story

Just as every politician has to be able the answer the question ‘why should I vote for you?,’ every CSR manager faces a similar question: ‘Why do we need a CSR programme?’

Many CSR managers find they have successfully made the business case (risks are better managed, employees are more engaged, costs are being saved, innovation encouraged) only to be asked ‘why?’ all over again by another department or new member of staff.

Ask one question over and over again, so that you can answer it when you’re asked: “Why?”

The best way to move past this is to use CSR to help answer bigger why questions. Why does this business exist? Why should I trust it? Why should I work there?

A strong articulation of your CSR strategy can help answer these questions for customers, staff and other stakeholders. With answers to those questions, the business has a reason to be. It provides a foundation for everything the business does: attracting and retaining great people, marshalling resources and winning new business.

By linking your CSR strategy into your social purpose as a business—your reason for being—you are embedding it into the very core of the company.

And the ‘business case’ question will be gone forever.

Align with leadership

Making themselves indispensable to the leader is a great way for a rising political star to survive in the cut and thrust of politics. So it is with CSR.

Leaders want to leave a legacy, a thumbprint on their time as CEO. Something distinctive they have done for the business that will forever be linked with them. Any history of Unilever would acknowledge the role played by Paul Polman in addressing its sustainability impact.

This is perhaps the ultimate way to win support for your CSR programme: Pass it on and make it your leader’s agenda.

Adam Garfunkel is a Principal with Junxion. He has spent over 25 years helping organisations to further their social and environmental goals.

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