How to authentically embody corporate social responsibility
CSR programs can energize and engage employees.
Last updated May 22, 2023
The concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) originated with companies having to clean up after their mistakes.
“It was born from when a company polluted a river, their corporate social responsibility program was how they offset that damage,” says Tiffany Apczynski, Zendesk’s former vice president of Public Policy and Social Impact.
Today, companies are expected to take more proactive stances and resulting actions and to lead the way on important issues.
In a 2020 Porter Novelli survey, 88 percent of employees said it’s not acceptable anymore for businesses to only make money without also positively impacting society. And 93 percent believe that “more than ever before, companies must lead with purpose.”
Some organizations, however, might not know how to rise to the occasion. To live up to the challenge of corporate social responsibility, leaders need to understand everything it entails and how to best exemplify it.
What is corporate social responsibility?
Corporate social responsibility definition:
The duty a company has to hold itself socially and environmentally accountable. Also known as corporate citizenship, CSR can take the form of self-regulating practices, charitable initiatives, philanthropic donations, or employee volunteering meant to positively impact local communities or the world at large.
Simply put, corporate social responsibility is about giving back and guiding a path forward.
That can—and often does—take the form of straightforward, individual acts of charity. Companies write large checks to nonprofits or have their employees help build a public playground. But many businesses, especially at the enterprise-level, feel compelled to take a more expansive, holistic approach.
“Corporate social responsibility exists because of the great responsibility that comes with billion dollar profitability and the influence you have in local communities,” says Apczynski.
Socially responsible companies hold values that inform their public statements on critical social issues, adoption of sustainable business practices, and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Instead of making one-time donations, these companies strive to form close, lasting relationships with the nonprofits they support that are genuinely meaningful.
“It’s about driving the right internal and external policies that will create long-term change,” says Apczynski.
What is CSR’s potential impact on your business?
The primary aim of corporate social responsibility is to have a positive impact on a local or global community. But the initiatives you take also impact the way that your employees and customers perceive your company.
Laura Shear, Zendesk’s content program manager of Corporate Social Responsibility, says that CSR is hugely important to the company’s growing, diverse, and largely millennial workforce.
“They want to get up in the morning and work for a company that does good in the world,” she explains. “So we do a lot of work within the social impact team to recognize just how crucial this is to the employees.”
Through employee surveys, the team is able to identify which issues the workforce is most passionate about.
Apczynski says that many of Zendesk’s customers have also expressed a lot of enthusiasm for the company’s CSR programs. She credits that, in part, to support teams being a major component of Zendesk’s customer base.
“A lot of the people who make the purchasing decisions around our software are in the field of customer support, where empathy is a core skill set you have to have,” she explains.
Of course, when a company leads, not everyone follows. Taking political stances can prove polarizing for employees and consumers.
Take, for example, Expensify CEO David Barrett’s decision to send an email to all 10 million of the company’s customers asking them to vote for Joe Biden. Though many employees supported the candidate, the potentially polarizing message still sparked a lot of internal debate within the company. Barrett also acknowledged that he received some negative feedback from customers.
Some companies prefer to avoid hot topic issues entirely. In September 2020, when many brands were publicly commenting on widespread social unrest, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong announced that his company would remain intentionally apolitical. When some employees expressed their disappointment with Coinbase’s anti-stances stance, Armstrong offered them a “generous separation package.”
In Apczynski’s opinion, that sort of move represents a lose-lose situation.
“Your employees who have now shown loyalty to you because they want to stay don’t win, because they don’t get any money,” Apczynski says. “And when you just cut checks to get rid of employees who want to be politically or socially active, it doesn’t help your brand reputation.”
The best way to avoid controversy isn’t shirking your corporate social responsibility but instead embracing it with sincerity.
3 best practices for corporate social responsibility programs
Socially responsible companies may share many of the same goals, but that doesn’t mean you should parrot everyone else.
An authentic embodiment of corporate social responsibility requires a unique, thoughtful approach that takes into consideration your company’s own practices, offerings, and employees.
Don’t just pay lip service to critical causes
In 2020, many companies took to social media to express their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. But several brands faced backlashes due to their own problematic business practices or lack of financial commitment to social justice movements.
“If your CEO sends out a letter and it’s tone deaf, it’s going to make its way all over the internet,” says Apczynski.
[Related Read: A tactical guide to preventing and surviving a social media crisis.]
She cites outdoor clothing company Patagonia as a good example of a brand that not only talks the talk, but walks the walk.
“One of my favorite campaigns from them asked you to not buy their clothes,” she explains. “And they had customers showing themselves using duct tape to repair the coat so that they could do everything in their power to wear out the product before it had to go into the waste stream.”
If you’re going to speak out on an issue, put your money where your mouth is with action and financial contributions to relevant groups or nonprofits. Audit your own business practices, partners, and suppliers to confirm that you’re not saying one thing and doing another. If hypocrisy does exist, be prepared to remedy it—even if a more sustainable, ethical business model is also more expensive.
Stick to what you do best
Ideally, your CSR programs should have a connection to your company’s unique product or service offerings.
Shear says that the vacation rental app Airbnb does a good job of leveraging its technology to help others. Their global “Airbnb Open Homes” program has provided temporary housing to those in need, including refugees and victims of natural disasters.
“It’s close to their core competencies, which I think is another thing that’s always important for an authentic message around corporate social responsibility,” she explains. “What you’re doing needs to sit within what your company can offer the world, as opposed to being really disconnected from it.”
For Zendesk, that means finding nonprofits that can benefit from sales and support software and providing it free of charge through its Tech for Good program.
“We have someone on our team who works like a sales account executive and researches nonprofits he feels are large enough that they’ll have the bandwidth to learn how to use Zendesk,” says Apczynski.
That process led them to partner with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) , an organization providing aid to refugees and displaced people.
Since 2019, IRC has been using Zendesk Sell to streamline the intake process at its welcome center in Arizona. The software helps the team gather family information, assign tasks to grant resources, and help families travel to their next destination. It’s also enabled IRC to provide long-term case management support to the people that it’s helping to navigate the asylum-seeking process.
Zendesk also recently partnered with Raheem, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building an independent database of police encounters. Using Zendesk’s chatbot technology, people are able to report incidents of police brutality that may otherwise be ignored. The organization plans to use this data to hold police accountable and influence how departments are funded by local governments.
Embrace new platforms for volunteering
For obvious reasons, 2020 may have ushered in a new era of virtual volunteering.
Volunteering has always been a big part of Zendesk’s culture. In 2019, 33 percent of employees donated six hours or more, totaling 22,000 hours overall.
But in the wake of the pandemic, the company had to pivot away from many in-person activities. Social distancing led to more specialized volunteering opportunities.
“As we’ve gone virtual, one of the ways that we’ve cultivated our volunteer experiences has been around specific skills and skilled volunteering,” Apczynski says. “And so we have been able to continue and even grow those programs that involve Zendesk employees doing what they do well on behalf of a nonprofit organization.”
Employees helped nonprofits build websites, navigate WordPress, and execute marketing campaigns.
“That’s the kind of volunteering that can be done virtually because it’s basically taking the skills that you bring to your job and applying them to a nonprofit,” Apczynski says.
Zendesk’s global workforce also took a virtual approach to curb the spread of coronavirus. Organizing through a #volunteer-translate Slack channel, over 100 employees across the world helped translate essential Covid-19 news into the languages of their regions. In Manila, employees assisted the Philippine Department of Health in disseminating pandemic guidelines throughout the whole country.
Try to match the abilities of your employees with the needs of deserving nonprofits. By casting a wide virtual net, you should be able to find some good fits.
Give remote work more meaning with CSR
Employees care more than ever about whether their employer is making the world a better place. And as more companies become fully or partially remote, an active culture of giving can help make up for the loss of traditional in-office perks.
“That emotional component that volunteering offers—I think that’s especially important to elevate right now,” Apczynski argues. “Those are the kinds of quality employee interactions that you need to foster, because you can’t offer snacks like you used to.”
Company culture can be hard to maintain with a distributed workforce, but it’s always easy to gather around a common cause.