It’s no secret consumers take notice of a brand’s stance on social and environmental issues. European consumers, for instance, are greener and more willing to buy from sustainable brands, according to a report, “Greener Consumers Demand Sustainable Brands” from Forrester last month. French and Italian consumers see a firm’s position on climate change as the number one corporate social responsibility (CSR) issue.

If it were only that easy for companies, though, to turn on the CSR switch. CSR is a shared responsibility among the top management, not just a communication approach or a one-off initiative, according to Thomas Husson, VP and principal analyst for Forrester. “It has to be deeply rooted into the DNA of a company, based on its values and these values have to be shared culturally within the organization. If they are not, this is a recipe for failure.”

Walking the Walk and Measuring the Results

Precisely launching an “initiative” before making sure it aligns with the company’s values is a big reason why brands fail in this arena, according to Husson. Consistency is key, he added, as CSR relies on a deep understanding of how employees and consumer values align along the brand.

Successful CSR initiatives begin and end with brands that “walk the talk,” Husson said. “Organizations must deliver proof points of what the brand stand for so that these initiatives are executed across the company and are not just a communications’ strategy.” Unsuccessful CSR initiatives often include “disparate and vague initiatives whose impact is not measured.”

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Wide Appeal Across Company Stakeholders

Julie Millard, vice president of corporate citizenship at Waterloo, Ontario-based B2B software company OpenText, is responsible for fulfilling these types of responsibilities on a day-to-day basis at her company. One of the company’s recent endeavors was a combined donation of $1 million to food banks in December.

“We really wanted to make an impact in our communities where our employees live and work,” Millard said. “It wasn't difficult to identify food banks as the focus for this campaign. They've had a really tough year and a lot of challenges. The need is going up. We would typically do a lot of volunteering with food banks, and that hasn't been able to happen. So we thought we can make the most impact with putting meals on the table for families.”

While this is a one-time sizable and commendable contribution to an organization that directly benefits society’s neediest population, Millard knows that’s not all that corporate social responsibility is: one-off donations to nonprofits.

So how do you incorporate CSR into your organization’s DNA? Millard said in order to ensure OpenText is investing and committing to causes that align with the organization’s values, it has an established site leader program. There are identified leaders who have specific roles in helping across the company.

“It's sort of like our on-the-ground, cultural leader and employee engagement leader,” Millard said. “And that was my go-to when it was time to reach out for this campaign to figure out what was going to work in their regions. This network of leaders are at the grassroots level in each of our respective offices, and it’s so invaluable to have that feedback loop for how certain campaigns are going to work or how we can tweak things for their market. Because we definitely want to empower them to have the flexibility to make sure their campaigns are working.”

That type of feedback and input into a broader CSR or corporate citizenship program is crucial, Millard said, because it empowers stakeholder input across the company. It’s allowed her teams to build an all-encompassing program that's going to be effective and reflective of your company.

“You need to have those listening channels open and identified,” Millar said.

Small Team but Big Support

While her team is small — it’s Millard and two others — the corporate citizenship group lives off a framework of corporate social responsibility and reports into the chief legal officer. Millard formerly sat in marketing, but with corporate citizenship more formalized in recent years it’s under legal at OpenText.

“We have a structure where we've identified a steering committee, and it's with representation from across the business,” she said. “We have quarterly meetings with our steering committee and they give us guidance and direction on our program goals, and help us understand how to work with the business to get our work done. And so that's been really effective and through our chief legal officer this gets visibility right up to our board of directors.”

There are also corporate citizen champions across the company, similar to the site leader network. They plan initiatives to help OpenText further its CSR goals, whether it's informing everyone about environmental goals and planning or organizing a litter-day pickup. "They're very civic-minded, so they help us kind of build more awareness at the grassroots employee level for all of our corporate citizenship initiatives where we're looking to engage employees," Millard said.

Learning Opportunities

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Will It Make Your Employees Proud?

HubSpot is another company that made a sizable contribution to a societal effort recently. The Cambridge, Mass.-based marketing automation and CRM company announced in December that it has committed $20 million to social impact investing. The company's first allocation of those funds is a $12.5 million investment in the Black Economic Development Fund, which supports Black-led financial institutions, community centers, anchor institutions and business transactions. The Fund is managed by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), one of the nation's largest community development financial institutions.

Eimear Marrinan, director of culture at HubSpot, said today’s employees and customers want to work for, and buy from companies who don’t just talk about corporate social responsibility, but who are actually walking the walk on that promise.

“And," she said, "many equate CSR initiatives to big dollar donations, so sometimes companies wait to give back until they are in the position to do so,” Marrinan said. “Truth is, if giving back is baked into your core values, that action is possible at any stage of growth, whether you're a two-person company or are a global, public company. It is also important that a CSR initiative should span beyond just financial donations. It is important to adopt a holistic approach by considering employee volunteering, raising awareness of your charity partners and helping drive social change.”

HubSpot’s mission with its CSR initiatives help grow access and resources for up-and-coming entrepreneurs, and partner with organizations to support educational initiatives in respective communities.

“I think one of the most important things before you dive into a CSR initiative is to ask yourself: will this make our current and future employees and customers proud?” Marrinan said. “If the answer is ‘I’m not sure,’ then I’d encourage you to think about why that is. A CSR initiative should be reflective of your company’s mission and align with your culture and values.”

It’s also valuable to examine the full scope of impact of a CSR initiative, she added. For example, you should be able to identify specifically where your donation is going and/or the impact employee volunteering is making: who it is helping, and what the impact will look like not just five days but five years in the future. Unsuccessful CSR initiatives often do not include a framework for measuring impact or communicating to employees, customers and candidates what you are doing and why.

Transparent Reporting

In that vein, OpenText issued its first corporate citizen report last August. It prefaces the report with a message that claims, “This report is intended to outline our priorities, practices and ambitions as we embark on a new Technology for Good corporate citizenship program. Having signed on to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) in 2018, we have included our UNGC Communication on Progress in the Appendix.”

Millard said the report was meant for a way to tell customers the company is listening to what’s important from its customers. It dedicates some of its report to discussing efforts in diversity and inclusion, what the company values, how it approaches technology development and steps it takes to construct an ethical supply chain.

“For new companies who are considering publishing a report, transparency is absolutely key,” Millard said. “It’s all about sharing what your key priorities are for your stakeholders and then being super transparent about where you are today. We’re not super-advanced in all of our areas, but it's really important to share with all of your stakeholders where you are today and where you want to go because it's important to them and builds such enormous trust with them that you have a plan."