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What is Corporate Social Responsibility (and What Does It Mean for Nonprofits)?

volunteers collecting donations

Starbucks is everywhere. Love them or hate them, they do more than provide coffee, tea, and snacks. The corporation is committed to effecting positive change in society. They invest in local communities and workers in other regions by creating a global network of farmers. They strive for new store locations to be “certified green” buildings, reducing waste, as well as energy and water use. Starbucks also offers a college program for its employees, who in turn contribute millions of hours of community service.

In essence, Starbucks has touched on the “trifecta” of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): social, environmental, and economic impact. And, they’re far from done. Starbucks aims to donate 50 million meals by the year 2020 by giving unsold, leftover food from its stores to food banks. How do they do it all? By integrating corporate social responsibility into their business operations.

What is Corporate Social Responsibility?

Corporate social responsibility is a hot button topic for a wide range of organizations lately, but few know what it actually is. The most basic definition of corporate social responsibility is: “a self-regulating business model that keeps a company socially accountable.” By practicing corporate social responsibility, companies benefit society through the social, environmental, and economic impacts of their operations. Businesses that practice CSR positively contribute to communities where they operate and try to avoid “active harm,” such as toxic waste dumping, poor labor standards, or deforestation.

The increasing importance of CSR means that business models are no longer cleanly divided into nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Instead, companies are being encouraged to keep up with social trends by establishing their own CSR policies, which may inspire them to seek out partnerships with nonprofits.

CSR Means Better Business and More Impact

Nonprofits and the public are beginning to recognize and celebrate socially responsible companies. Praising companies who practice “good CSR” encourages them to continue their efforts, and shows other companies how they can do similar work. It also attracts more consumers to businesses who are driving social good. This means that more money will go to companies who are focused on more than just their bottom line.

The benefits of corporate social responsibility are leading more organizations to take the leap and establish their own policies.

The benefits of a strong CSR policy include:

It’s also worth noting that CSR isn’t just for new businesses or startups. Long-established companies can change and begin practicing good CSR at any time. Lego is a wonderful example; they ended a 50-year partnership with Shell Global due to Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic. In 2018, Lego ranked second in Reputation Institute’s list of most reputable countries around the world.

It’s never too late for companies to change for the better, and for companies to consider “taking on” a cause or partnering with nonprofit organizations to do so.

How Nonprofits and CSR-focused Businesses are Working Together

The rising focus on CSR is also creating an increasing number of opportunities for nonprofits. By strengthening operations and holding themselves to high social standards, individual businesses can make a larger impact, which they often do with the help of partnered nonprofits. This benefits both nonprofits and businesses because, while CSR guides businesses in their operations, it doesn’t automatically create a direct line to their chosen causes. Nonprofits, on the other hand, might lack a comparable framework or even the audience they need to do their important work. Working together, nonprofits and businesses can have the ultimate impact on a shared vision.

By practicing CSR and developing policies within their architecture, companies can also start to think beyond a one-time direct donation at the end of the year. Instead, they can now build long-term relationships with nonprofits, provide volunteer opportunities for their employees, and even build in a portion of their sales or profits to go directly to an important cause. But best of all, nonprofits and businesses are realizing they’re on the same side–and they’re starting to team up.

You’ve likely seen ads for your favorite brands that highlight a specific nonprofit; think of Walgreens and the Red Nose Day or Subaru’s Love Promise. These are great examples of what happens when nonprofits and CSR-focused companies work together. All of this only matters when consumers care. And they do.

CSR Affects Business Brand, Consumers, and Employees

A 2017 study of consumers found that 87% would purchase a product because a company supported an issue they cared about. Furthermore, 76% would refuse to buy from a company if they learned it supported an issue contrary to their beliefs. Those percentages cannot be ignored by companies hoping to capture new and changing consumer demographics. The appeal of CSR goes beyond the consumer side, too. Jobseekers, many of whom are millennials, look for employers who focus on corporate social responsibility in their operations.

Practicing CSR shouldn’t be treated as a fad by companies, or a quick scheme to enhance brand reputation. By building CSR values into business strategies and the overall goal of the work they do, companies will consistently get recognized for their good work and create a positive lasting image. Practicing CSR well creates meaningful change on its own, even if the contributions and the causes are small at first. Businesses can focus on causes that are meaningful and relevant to their clients’ employees and partners. By integrating the ethos into a company’s work culture, practicing CSR will feel less like a chore and more like it’s business as usual.

CSR Looks Different for Every Business

CSR is not one-size-fits-all because no business is identical to the next. Companies may choose to donate money, their products, or their services to a nonprofit organization. They may also decide to donate their time by volunteering for different nonprofit organizations or attending charity events. Internally, management may focus on reducing their carbon footprint or concentrate on ensuring their workforce is treated fairly and paid well.

No matter how businesses choose to focus their CSR efforts, it’s important they are transparent about their practices. Being honest builds trust in the eyes of the public, including both consumers and stakeholders. Trust and honesty will lay the foundation of a strong corporate social responsibility policy, which will, in turn, attract all the benefits that come from it.

In the end, everyone benefits from corporate social responsibility: nonprofit organizations can make a bigger difference and for-profit organizations can improve their public image, revenue, and overall longevity. Most of all, though, businesses can trigger large-scale change across their communities and the world when they decide to work for a cause.

If your business has a corporate social responsibility policy, we’d love to hear from you! Contact us at [email protected].  

Creating a CSR program can be daunting. Our professional services team can assist you and your business in creating, and implementing a CSR program. Contact us to learn more.  

Since 2007, NobleHour has proven to be the volunteer management solution for organizations across the nation. With its robust online platform, NobleHour enhances community engagement with a variety of innovative and transformative tools for finding, tracking, and measuring volunteer, service‐learning, and community service initiatives. With offices in Lakeland, FL, and Portland, OR, the NobleHour team is dedicated to empowering good in communities across the country.


By NobleHour Special Contributor:

Latasha Doyle
Consultant, NobleHour
Contributing Writer
Denver, Colorado

Latasha Doyle is a writer and long term care volunteer living outside of Denver, Colorado. When she’s not writing or volunteering, she enjoys crocheting, Netflix marathons, and planning her next trip.