Is corporate social responsibility dead?

CSR. Corporate Social Responsibility. Is it an outdated concept reduced to a box ticking exercise or a must-have part of your overall corporate strategy? Thrive’s Neil Macdonald offers some thoughts.

Recently, I spoke at a seminar led by Rob Wolfe, managing director at social value consultancy CHY. Talking with a number of innovative CSR and impact managers, it quickly became evident that there are myths to be addressed in CSR and advice needed on how to advance strategy.

Three key questions that Rob, myself and the other panellists tackled were: Is CSR dead? How do I start a new CSR or social value strategy? and why should I bother? I’ve explored these questions below. You might find the information useful in driving your own CSR or social value strategy.

1. Is CSR dead?

The term corporate social responsibility is being used less and less amongst corporate teams and vested stakeholders. The meaning of giving back to society is changing. It has, in the past, often been a corporate box ticking exercise. As Rob Wolfe says: “CSR at its worst is a PR campaign-led exercise that is more bothered about looking good rather than making genuine impact”.

There have been many unfortunate examples over the years of companies showing a ‘front’ and displaying a public face of being a responsible business while engaging in contradictory actions behind the scenes. Nowhere was this more obvious than at VW. They designed a system to circumnavigate the dirty emissions of their cars while trading off the title of most environmentally friendly brand. Corporate and social responsibility was clearly a PR exercise for them and nothing else. 

So, thinking of CSR as a PR campaign or showing the community how well you are supporting them is outdated and could even be bad business. Instead, as Rob Wolfe claims: “CSR at its best is social value”.

So, is CSR itself dead? The overall sentiment of people and businesses doing good is not, but the way we look at it has changed. Businesses can no longer be judged on the outward appearance of what they are giving back. There needs to be a deeper purpose, a broader vision of what a company is trying to achieve and how they operate internally, for the social ‘good’ they are delivering to be really effective. Thankfully there is now a clear business case for doing that. Numerous studies show that businesses with a purpose beyond profits are outperforming their peers in many ways, not least because they attract and retain better talent and more committed employees.

2. How do I start a new CSR or social value strategy and what do I incorporate into it from the start?

The first thing to do is to look at the broad definitions of social value that are out there. CSR is now a holistic view of environmental concerns, sustainability, local economic spend, diversity and inclusion and many more aspects. 

When organisations come to Thrive at the beginning of their social value journey, we look together at the list of metrics that come built into our software and ask them to find the quick wins - what are you doing already where you can craft that social value strategy and social value story? You don’t need to be revolutionary from day one. Often organisations are doing a lot already and they don’t realise it is actually social value. It could be training programmes that they are delivering, employment options, or sustainability programmes they have in place. So, look broadly at what you are doing and start there.

Then, tie in which parts of social value fit your business ambitions and purpose. Look at not only where you want to have influence, but where you actually can have influence – you may want to impact food poverty around the world but where does your business have that influence?  

3. Why bother?

As the late Desmond Tutu said: “We measure the success of who we are by our impact on other people”. Having a purpose within your business, a purpose beyond making money, is really very much at the heart of social value. But. There is also a business case for it.

There is a virtuous circle that can occur when businesses invest in social issues and sustainability strategies. When a business can create both increased profits and an increased social return, that organisation will be more invested in investing more – into the environmental agenda, social aspects etc – which then feeds back to an even better bottom line which creates this virtuous circle. That is good for business and good for society.

It improves talent, diverse thinking and creativity within your business. In 2015 there was a research project that highlighted that 42% of staff are looking to work for businesses that have a positive impact on society and 44% of those in the survey said having a positive impact on society was more important than money in a job.

It improves growth. 60% of consumers are now more mindful about where they buy their products and services from. They want to buy those products and services from socially and environmentally beneficial businesses and not those that are simply seen to be ‘green washing’, or worse, actually harming the environment or community. 

I hope the above gives you some pointers on where to start. If you would like to take your CSR strategy to the next level, then please feel free to get in touch.

Neil Macdonald is the chief executive of online software platform and consultancy Thrive.

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email