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The Overlooked Flaw in Current CSR Goal Setting Practices

There’s no doubt Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) plays a critical role in achieving positive social and environmental outcomes. In this day and age, the way a business operates (how they create their products, where and how they volunteer, and even how they care for their employees) matters. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise when social issues become the focus of a company’s business strategy. But I find myself questioning the process some companies use to not just identify the issue to solve, but even how they establish the goals they seek to achieve.

I’ll explain what I mean, but first I'll preface my thoughts by acknowledge the importance of setting goals. However, where I get lost is in the steps taken when choosing to even set CSR goals to begin with. Here’s why. When companies set CSR goals, I generally see the same this three step pattern;

  • Step 1: The canvasing of customers, employees and stakeholders to gauge what they value, find important and want to support.

  • Step 2: Outlining quantifiable goals (i.e., number of volunteer hours to achieve, sum total of monetary grants given, number of organizations or members of the community served) to be accomplished.

  • Step 3: Establishing partnerships with relevant organizations that will help the company achieve the numeric goals established in Step 2.

If you’re like me, you may already see the flaw in this. For others, this may be similar to arguing which came first, the chicken or the egg. Maybe it is. But in my opinion the current practice and methodology that aids a company in arriving at their CSR goals may subtly ignore the critical needs of society simply because they were designed at the onset to achieve the desires and expectations of those doing the serving.

Simply put, the company determines in many cases what they want to support, how they’ll do it, the output or outcome they’re seeking to achieve and then only after creating the framework seek partners that will help them (the company) achieve that goal.

To me, the process needs to be restructures because It’s flawed.

Here’s what must be asked. If the true intent of CSR is to address the needs in the community, then is the current process only a self-serving way to set CSR goals?

Does this process of goal setting actually meet the needs of the community or environment?

Does this practice of setting goals propel CSR beyond just “doing good” to actually “doing right” for the community and environment?

I'm not convinced.

Reimagining the steps when establishing CSR goals.

Now, what's described isn’t necessarily the rule. There are in fact some companies that mirror their CSR goals with that of the needs in the community, taking their cue from their community-based partners. But for those who've been around the block a few times like me knows that’s not usually the case. So, moving forward we must reimagine a world where CSR goals go beyond arbitrary metrics designed by the well-intended (yet least informed). We must get to a place where the CSR goals set are actually a reflection of the community-based organizations at the forefront of serving. This in some ways will also require reimagining the current partnership model between corporations and their non-profit counterparts, which gets me to a practice those in CSR should consider adopting.

To better meet the needs of the community, a company’s CSR team should think about mirroring the goals and definitions of success and failure off those of their community-based partners.

Right now, the current model of CSR may actually be creating a situation where the corporation dictates both of those, meaning, the company chooses the focus area they want to support, choose the quantifiable goals they aim to achieve, and then only after that seek partnerships that help the company achieve that goal.

For example, in this scenario if a company has a specific focus area of eliminating poverty that's also tied to a subset goal of volunteering a certain number of hours in support of poverty-focused organizations, then it’s in that company’s interest to partner with poverty-focused organizations that have a ton of volunteer opportunities.

When engaging in a CSR strategy that’s designed like this, the strategy itself may actually disincentivize the pursuit of partnering with organizations that may be far more effective in eliminating poverty but don’t have a model of including the number or types of volunteers that support the company’s quantitative goals (i.e., number of volunteer hours).

Building on that last example, let’s now think of a scenario where most poverty alleviation organizations simply need money so they can house those who are unsheltered while triaging their other needs related to health, education and employment. Imagine in this same scenario this organization’s service delivery model doesn’t have a need for the traditional and episodic volunteer engagement but provides the most effective programming. Well, that organization might be out of luck in getting support if the company in question doesn’t have a goal solely focused on grant giving or the number of unsheltered persons being placed in transitional or permanent housing.

See what I’m getting at?

The last time I checked, non-profits weren’t founded with the primary objective of supporting their corporate counterpart’s brand reputation or arbitrary CSR goals.

Instead, what I suggest is that in the ideation process of creating CSR goals, perhaps after determining what's important for the community find and create a partnership with a community-based organization, then in collaboration with this same organization create CSR goals as equal partners. Using this process, you’ll take a different set of steps by reversing the order and expanding the number of steps. This is how it may look.

  • Step 1: Canvas the community to understand the social and environmental challenges.

  • Step 2: Work through the process of identifying where the company is uniquely well-resourced to support.

  • Step 3: Embark on a multi-year strategic partnership with an organization the company is well-resourced to support.

  • Step 4: Then design quantitative and qualitative goals (or perhaps shared goals) that mirror that of the community-based organization in which the company is partnered with.

In this instance, when creating goals, the CSR team for the company would essentially take their cue from the community-based organization.

This of course would require companies to really think strategically about what organizations they’re aligned with, and maybe even do some strategic planning with the same organization as equals. The company can make a commitment to serve this same organization for three to five years, and then map out all the places where that company’s CSR program is best resourced to support. This would include identifying opportunities for volunteers, grant funding and in-kind contributions far in advance with the flexibility to address ad-hoc needs and unexpected situations.

If the goals of their community-based partner change, so would the CSR goals for that company. In this same model the company’s CSR program would also define success and failure based on the achievements of the community-based organization (their strategic partner). This would in a sense create more incentive for that company to solve the critical issues in the community because the company’s CSR goals mirror that of their strategic partner on the front lines.

Now I suspect that’s not a popular idea for many companies because of a perception of conflicting priorities. Let me share a few final thoughts to assuage that fear.

In many instances the employees are members of the community where that company does business, and oh by the way, a company's customers may also exist in these same communities. So, it’s my belief that what’s actually good for the community is also good for the company. Often times a thriving community will contribute to a thriving business. I also happen to think that while many will verbally share they too believe this, to actually achieve this, the actions and practices of CSR will have to shift, much in the way that I described the refocus in how CSR goals should be set.

But what do you think?

Are current CSR goal setting practices effective? Are they not working? Or alternatively, if you have a different idea about how CSR goals should be set, send me a note. Most people who know me understand I’m always in a pursuit to establish better practices for CSR, so I always enjoy hearing other ideas and conversing with likeminded professionals. But, in any case, while I hope to hear from you, if I don't, stay Responsible AF.

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