Is Social Impact Here to Stay?
The COVID-19 pandemic created fundamental changes in the way businesses operate. One business trend that has gained momentum over the past two years is corporate social responsibility (CSR), the notion that companies have a responsibility to promote the broader good in their community and the world.
CSR recalls elements of stakeholder theory—a corporate practice stating that businesses should seek to generate returns not just for their shareholders, but also for the communities in which they operate. Stakeholder theory – which largely fell out of favor in the 1980s – has seen a recent resurgence in the forms of CSR and social impact, which grew in prominence amid the economic uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the 2020s, as Ethos Giving Founder and CEO Emily Kane Miller would say, social impact has gone from a “nice to have” to a “need to have” for organizations across a wide range of sectors. Still, many C-suite and communications teams often wonder: Is CSR here to stay? Or is it merely a pandemic era fad destined to fade from memory?
Through its work with Ethos Giving, Miller Ink provides a wide range of communications services to support organizations’ social impact goals. Below, we have compiled some of our most commonly received questions about social impact. Our answers seek to shed some light on the intersection between social impact and communications and answer the question many executives have pondered over the last 27 months—does social impact matter, and should I invest in it?
Implementing CSR practices is a big investment for businesses. Why should businesses work to become more socially responsible, and is it worth their while?
Over the past five years, CSR has evolved into a need-to-have, where social impact is baked in companies’ missions. More and more, consumers are starting to make purchasing decisions with their conscience. They’re increasingly likely to research a company’s founders and employees, supply chains, and commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) before purchasing a product or service.
Many executives and owners ask, “Why CSR?” Businesses have a lot of space, power, and capacity to make an impact in ways that government cannot. For the first time in decades, consumers expect companies to leverage their resources to make a difference. Consumers want to know that they’re giving their money to good people and that ethical decisions are behind the products they buy. The public is paying careful attention to exactly how companies deliver social impact messages, and they’re sniffing out what is real and what is a façade. Customers vote with their dollars, and businesses do not want to fall on the wrong side of these new expectations.
Will public demand for CSR be sustained, or will it diminish over time?
The push toward CSR was already gaining momentum before 2020. As the pandemic forced everyone inside due to furloughs, layoffs, and public safety concerns, people suddenly had much more time to pay close attention to the companies they were purchasing from, putting CSR and social impact under a magnifying glass.
Public demand for CSR will be sustained; it will be challenging for companies to revert to pre-pandemic norms when they’ve established a precedent. People are also putting a lot more pressure on consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies in terms of their supply chains and holding companies accountable for their roles in climate change. These expectations are now mainstream—and once they’ve reached that level, they won’t simply go away.
It’s one thing for large, multinational corporations to implement social impact programs. But what if you’re a small to mid-sized company that just makes ends meet? What can you do to give back to your community and help those in need?
Companies that want to implement a social impact program should start internally by asking themselves what they can do for their employees. Maybe it’s better employee engagement tactics, continuing education programs, or offering days of service or volunteerism. Most companies can find new ways to show their employees that they care.
Beyond employee engagement, companies should consider where their dollar will make the greatest impact. When it comes to philanthropy, there is a tendency among companies to give to large, nationally prominent organizations. That’s not a bad thing; giving to groups with a large reach and deep pockets can certainly help make an impact. However, companies should also consider focusing their CSR efforts on nonprofits with high touch and the best grassroots reach within their communities. These organizations, while smaller than most blue-chip nonprofits, often undertake essential work in underserved areas, filling in the gaps in national social service provision, meaning that the dollars will generally go further.
There’s a misperception that campaigns only engage in social impact for the positive press. Do you think there’s a tension between public relations and social impact? How can social impact efforts work within wider strategic communications campaigns?
People notice when communications about companies and their social impact programs feel flashy but lack substance. The best communications strategies for your social impact campaigns start with the programs themselves. Social impact efforts must be authentic and create a responsive partnership. Putting substance ahead of the PR displays that a company is doing more than simply cutting a check in front of the cameras.
Nonprofits need strategic partnerships. For-profit companies’ social impact messaging should reflect this need for partnership as much as possible and convey the successes of that partner rather than the company itself. These efforts must come across as an investment and not a one-time opportunity.
It’s about authenticity and timing and propping up the right voices. Backing up your efforts with real work is the surest way the communications will be well received.