How Companies Can Strategically Build Purposeful Corporate Social Responsibility Programs In Five Steps

Head of Corporate Communications/Corporate Social Responsibility, Sony. Previously: Qualcomm and Former journalist & nonprofit CEO.


Despite the economic challenges of 2020, corporate giving didn’t slow down last year. According to a survey by The Conference Board, 61% of major global companies spent more on philanthropy in 2020 than budgeted, with 58% of respondents using incremental funds for Covid-19 efforts, and 54% of respondents using incremental funds to help address racism in the United States. Additionally, over two-thirds of the surveyed companies said they plan to maintain or increase their total level of giving in 2021.

With this increased activity, companies can make a significant impact while boosting their brand visibility. There is an undeniable symbiotic relationship at play—corporate giving benefits communities and helps companies reach their business objectives. A 2017 Cone Communications CSR study found that 87% of respondents will purchase a product because a company stood behind an issue they cared about. And a 2016 Cone Communications study on millennial employee engagement found that 64% of millennials consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when choosing a workplace.


However, companies’ philanthropic efforts are often coordinated in silos without concrete strategies that tie back to their corporate ethos. The result of this can be one-off charity events that miss the opportunity to make a long-lasting impact on communities.

If companies want to begin helping create authentic, positive changes for communities while bolstering their brands, revenue equities and attractiveness as employers, they must understand the philanthropic ecosystem and embark on strategic, cyclical corporate giving that grows over time. They can start doing so with several key steps.

1. Identify Causes To Support

The basic first step toward strategic CSR is obvious but not as simple as it sounds. The causes a company chooses to support should reflect its corporate ethos. Companies that have done an exceptional job of aligning their philanthropic efforts with their brand ethos include Patagonia, Chewy and Qualcomm (disclosure: Qualcomm is my former employer and I had some influence on the Qualcomm Wireless Reach program).

To accomplish similar results, companies should ask themselves two things: “What is the tangible societal benefit of this effort?” and “Is there a correlation between the beneficiary of this effort and our business?”

Let’s start with that first question. If there’s little to no tangible societal benefit to the proposed effort, any action here will be disingenuous and possibly harmful. To be frank, gifts and one-time checks don’t scale toward real impact. For instance, a furniture company decking out a high school with new furniture is a nice gesture (and one that will bring joy to staff and students). However, it may not help them long term, the way that a furniture company funding a woodworking class might.

Regarding the second question, if a company can’t draw a correlation between its business and the beneficiary, the idea will probably not make sense for the business from a messaging standpoint, nor will it support its broader goals. For instance, for an optometry practice, raising funds for a glaucoma foundation reflects its core competencies better than raising funds for an animal shelter (even though helping an animal shelter is undoubtedly a commendable thing to do). However, suppose an optometry practice does want to support animal welfare. In that case, it could do so by tightening the correlation with a different angle—such as by partnering with a shelter to bring “Doggles” (dog glasses) to furry residents. This novel and humorous approach would make for a memorable awareness of universal eye health.

Suppose a company doesn’t have an “obvious” cause to support in relation to the nature of its work. In that case, internal stakeholders can use the United Nations’ “17 Sustainable Goals” as a starting point for understanding global needs.

Another way to gain ideas for causes to support is by surveying employees, which has an additional advantage. When employees feel heard, they’ll be more likely to get involved in the company’s charitable efforts, creating corporate synergy around the cause. Not only can employees donate items and money, but they can donate their time as well. Companies can advance causes by structuring programs that support employees giving back, both on and off the clock. For instance, depending on the cause, employees could sign up to volunteer at shelters, help students with homework and act as mentors for interns.

The key here is to let the employees voice the local and global causes they’re passionate about and recommend documented 501(c) 3 organizations they’d like the company to support.

2. Determine Proper Structures To Achieve Success

Once the company has identified which causes to support, it has to determine the proper relationship structure to move the needle on those causes. When determining the structure, companies should think through what will make a long-term impact on communities.

Say a national pet food brand has chosen to support animal welfare. Instead of one-off donations here and there, the brand can partner with regional animal shelters and donate a percentage of proceeds to them. This is true cause-marketing, and with this program, the national pet food brand is bolstering the cause, its brand and its revenue.

Another practical example is my employer, Sony, which launched the KOOV Academy in partnership with the UC San Diego Education Studies Department. Students who participate in the KOOV Academy learn digital coding skills by building and coding their own robotic devices. Society wins by having more young people with relevant training for jobs of the future and Sony wins by being at the front of that talent pipeline.

Additionally, companies should consider how they will measure success. Quantitative key performance indicators (KPIs) won’t reveal themselves immediately, but qualitative measures are essential from the outset. For instance, Sony’s measure of success for the KOOV Academy is generating more interest in programming and having more students consider entering the tech industry. There won’t be conclusive, quantitative success metrics until those students grow up and become qualified candidates entering the industry.

Of course, before creating formal programs, companies should evaluate their resources and determine how much money and time they can afford to allocate to a cause. If companies make financial or time commitments they can’t fulfill, they’ll hurt the nonprofit partners and communities involved, as well as their own reputations.

3. Give Nonprofit Partners Space To Lead

After companies have put a structure in place, they can create an action plan to work with nonprofit partners. The stronger the partnership between companies and nonprofits, the greater the likelihood of achieving charitable goals.

As someone who previously ran a nonprofit with both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(6) designations, I know first-hand that any help is better than no help; I appreciated every effort companies made toward impacting our organization. However, I had an additional layer of appreciation and respect for sustained, strategic assistance when it was offered alongside a willingness to learn the issues and understand our organization’s challenges and opportunities.

Nonprofit partners truly know the best way to approach initiatives and to reach their communities. Because they’re on the ground daily, they know things corporate partners simply don’t. Companies should trust their nonprofit partners and seek to understand them—and only then should they build a win-win plan alongside them.

Given that nonprofits typically don’t have the same headcount as corporations, the last thing companies want to do is overextend nonprofit staff on driving uninformed, myopic programs designed from only the corporate perspective. By collaborating early, communicating often and supporting each other authentically, both parties can stand back and watch as serendipitous outcomes come to life.

4. Get The Good News Out Without Missing The Mark

Companies should not undertake CSR solely to generate positive press coverage. However, companies must be vocal about how they’re showing up in the community. Public relations around those efforts can advance causes by amplifying nonprofit partner voices and driving others to act. Press is more likely to come if, during the planning stages, the company and nonprofit get the right people involved, get the messaging right, and establish solid relationships with members of the media.

Securing strategic press coverage starts with involving the right internal and external stakeholders. Larger companies typically have corporate communications/public relations and CSR departments. Experts in those disciplines should drive ironclad messaging that informs people about their company’s ethos and proof points and shares the “why” behind the partnership with the nonprofit partner.

The messaging should also include any relevant data points and stories that help explain why the cause is pressing. Nothing resonates with the press more than an authentic story of a philanthropic act or relationship that aligns with a relevant societal need. For example, one tactical approach is to have alumni of a philanthropic program share their stories, and include statistics that show how a large percentage of those alumni were able to make huge strides as a result of the program.

Companies without internal corporate communications/public relations or CSR departments can also embark on public relations strategies. For instance, human resources could collaborate with employees who are passionate about causes to brainstorm ways to get involved and then highlight that involvement.

5. Practice Humility And Transparency

I can’t emphasize how crucial it is for companies to practice humility in executing their philanthropic efforts. Striving to be a part of the solution doesn’t equate to having all the answers.

Last year at Sony, we earmarked $100 million to go toward Covid-19 relief by providing masks and ventilators to areas in need while also providing resources to creative communities that suffered job losses. A few months later, Sony earmarked another $100 million to help stop acts of hate and social injustice. With both of these efforts, we humbly assumed a posture of awareness and learning. In particular, with the funds toward battling social injustice, we acknowledged that overnight solutions would not solve a long legacy of inequity to the Black community.

External criticism of a company’s CSR efforts isn’t something that can be entirely avoided, especially if the company doesn’t yet have an established track record of being socially aware or active. However, by exercising humility, companies can decrease the likelihood of appearing opportunistic.

Getting CSR right is challenging and requires tight-knit collaboration between many stakeholders. But when companies take the time to understand the philanthropic ecosystem and approach CSR in a global, strategic, responsible manner, addressing real societal needs, there’s a greater likelihood of creating tangible benefits for both their brands and our society.

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Head of Corporate Communications/Corporate Social Responsibility, Sony. Previously: Qualcomm and Former journalist & nonprofit CEO. Read Cheryl Goodman’s full