Exploring the Business of Corporate Social Responsibility

by Rachel Tappis
Associate Director of Community Impact
The Advisory Board Company

When I received my acceptance to the 2015 class of the Institute for Corporate Social Responsibility, I was thrilled. Incredible guest speakers, classmates from well-known companies, compelling and substantial subject matter, all led by highly-respected faculty members? Sign me up!

CSR program managers often work in small teams, and it’s rare that fellow employees outside of our departments truly understand the challenges we’re charged with in our roles. The opportunity to spend eight full days over a year immersed in the theory behind what we do, and to come away with practical, applicable steps to heighten our impact, is a luxury I was eagerly anticipating.

We began our year of learning in January with “The Business of CSR,” led by the incredible Tim McClimon, president of the American Express Foundation. It’s difficult to adequately sum up the value we derived from our first session, but below are the major takeaways that – one month removed – I can say have truly impacted the way I approach my daily work and the broader strategy behind our program direction:

  • Remember the why: Lead faculty member Tim McClimon’s review of the evolution of CSR, as well as the major trends in the field over the past several years, allowed our class to revisit the foundation on which our programs are built and re-center ourselves in the goal of what we do and the potential for what we can accomplish.
  • Go after your greatest challenge: CSR practitioners – especially those who work in small teams – may not always have the opportunity to brainstorm creative solutions to problems with colleagues who hold different perspectives and experiences. The opportunity to do this with our CSR Institute peers was tremendously helpful in the moment, and comforting because we were beginning to establish a terrific network of smart, passionate colleagues from whom we could seek advice and feedback in the future.
  • Take risks: Michael Smith, special assistant to the president on the My Brothers’ Keeper Initiative, visited from the White House and encouraged us to “Be Fearless” in our approach to generating social impact. The underlying theme amongst the five tenets he shared – make big bets, experiment early and often, make failure matter, reach beyond your bubble, and let urgency conquer fear – is that sticking with the status quo won’t move the needle to the magnitude needed.
  • Make a compelling business case: Rose Kirk, president of the Verizon Foundation gave great insight on building the business case for CSR, hitting specifically on how to engender critical leadership buy-in and how to evaluate the integration of CSR focus along various business lines. Dane Smith, managing director of FSG also reviewed the concept of shared value, which allowed all of us to examine our program interventions under the lens of how they further the business aims of our organizations alongside social impact.
  • Build mutually beneficial partnerships: Evan Hochberg, chief strategy officer from United Way Worldwide, delved into nonprofit relationships and revealed his secret sauce for building impactful partnerships that last – building the foundation on shared goals, creating an equal interest in assets, and ensuring transparency and effective account management.
  • Learn from past successes: Reviewing case studies of successful CSR and shared value integration helped to put the principles we discussed into a day-to-day context that, while different from those we each operate in, gave further depth to the types of challenges we’ve each faced from a logistical and management perspective, and demonstrated that they are not insurmountable.

Between the immense value I derived from the first session and the extent to which I’ve enjoyed keeping up with my classmates over the past month, it goes without saying that I can’t wait for our second session in March!

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