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Reflection on the pandemic's role on CSR and social impact

by Ornella Schillaci

The covid19 pandemic has deeply changed the world we live in. It's true for everything: the way we find information, the way we consume, the way we get in touch with each others. So of course, CSR and social impact activities didn't avoid these new ways of living. Back in 2020, when the pandemic was still expected to only last a few months, we met with Christian Robillard, board member of non-profit charity Youth Ottawa. Together, we discussed the basics of CSR but not only. Since the scenary was changing, we figured some best practices and came up with tips on how to adapt a CSR strategy during this ever-changing uncertain time.  


Optimy: What is the difference between philanthropy, CSR, and charity right now? 


Christian: I think the concept of corporate social responsibility is changing and is becoming a bit more integrated and more of a corporate citizenship type. Before it was very much when you engaged with a company or a company was looking to engage in social good. They had a suite of tools, whether it was pure philanthropy where we were about executing on doing something positive for the community to sponsorship, which was very much about how we're trying to get some type of business objective fulfilled by doing this thing through a marketing mechanism. And if it happened to be through a charity or nonprofit like a run or a walk or a gala or something like that, that's how they would do it to more objectives that align with their core purpose and deployed some of their assets, whether it was people, whether it was money, whether it was capital, whether it was any of the other assets that they had to bring to the table.

So I think now you're seeing a lot of that blending in terms of repurposing of some of the company's assets to achieve some of those social good activities. I think with corporate social responsibility, you are necessarily not necessarily seeing that full integration. It was much more individual-type activities like we're going to go out and volunteer for this particular cause. And now I think we're seeing more of a rise of corporate social responsibility outside of corporate citizenship, where we're seeing a full integration of not just what activities are we specifically doing to show that we care about the community and that we want to invest in our community to make it a better place for everyone. But corporate citizenship goes further and says, How do we redesign our business systems that they integrate elements of social good into those like how do we make sure that our hiring practices are equitable right now? Or how do we make sure that if we have these extra capital assets that we could deploy towards social good activities, how could we do that? Or how do we make sure that our supply chain is the most sustainable and eco-friendly and best for the planet, while not also being able to generate some type of profit and being cost-effective? 


Optimy: What are your tips when it comes to best practices on funding allocation in times of crisis?

 

Christian: So I think there is there's a couple of things to start with. I think the first one is as either a foundation or as a company. It's important for you to take a bit of stock and say, OK, is everyone within our relative sphere of influence or working with us? Are they OK and in a good spot because it's not fair? I don't think it's possible for you to take care of others and to go into communities and support others without having your own affairs in order. 

And in fact, that could cause further issues down the line, whether it's you having to lay off people because you've decided to make up these grants to fantastic organizations, but then that puts additional strain on the system through people being unemployed. I think the second is taking a look at your existing partners and saying, "Who here are we currently funding and what can we do to further support them?" So I always have suggestions around making the funding flexible, asking if there's anything in terms of support that you can offer to those grantees to say, what are some additional resources we can provide to you? How can we make it so that there is minimal kind of reporting standards while still maintaining that accountability? But the most important thing right now is having that flexible funding and that certainty that they are getting that funding.

Because if you want to keep that partner for the long term, but you're refusing to give out grants this particular cycle or this year, those partners might not be here next year. And we need a robust charitable sector and social safety net, which charitable charities and nonprofits make up a big part of that. We need those people, and now is not the time to be pulling out funding if you can afford it. The second one, I would suggest, is that there's this campaign that's happening in North America and I believe around the world as well. Called Give five, which is all about having guarantors and funders commit five percent of their assets at a minimum towards granting out there could be a lot of stockpiling during this time. Some foundations are probably hurting because their financial returns have been affected due to the investment market being in flux. So it's important to and some might just withdraw because they don't want to risk eating into their capital reserves, which ultimately drives how much they can give out. But these are the times where it's the rainy day that we've always saved up this money for and that we exist to do something for. So I think people, I think foundations and grants and whomever else as a funder needs to be able to step up and say we're willing to not pull out, but instead keep our assets at five percent, if not more, if we can afford it. Because this is the time that philanthropy has to shine. And doing these social impact activities is so important right now to make sure that people don't slip through the cracks and not be able to support themselves. 


Optimy: Historically, there is a lot of funding into education and not that much into Healthcare projects. In India, for example, 60 percent of funds are invested in education, while only 22 percent in health care. Do you think this reality will change?


Christian: in terms of funding priorities for individuals as well as corporations in North America? Health care has always been up there with things like education, religious institutions, and some social services. So I think that the increase is important because if you're not able to have people take care of their health and there's a lot of other trickle-down effects, both economic and social, that that imposes on the system. So I think some philanthropists and some businesses are making that switch to be able to support people at their base level. 

We think of Maslow's hierarchy of needs as your base or always like your basic needs, your health, your food, your shelter, things of that nature. So think having that extra capital to support the health care system is important. But I also think it shows that perhaps there wasn't as much investment in the health care system to begin with, which is a whole other debate to be had. As for whether I think this funding will stay consistent, I'm not sure. I think that for the time it takes to recover, there will be some increased funding right now. But a lot of hospital foundations, a lot of health, a lot of hospital foundations have pretty healthy foundations in terms of their endowments and their support. So I think that they'll be fine if donations do go down to a certain degree. But I think it will be interesting to see whether this level of support from philanthropy will remain steady throughout, particularly bear the recovery in the period for health care organizations. 


Optimy: Working with foundations daily here and after money, we are known as people who usually have no background in philanthropy or social investment. Most of the time they are working in the business side of the organization, and the corporation opens a foundation and they get transferred. So what would be your advice to these people? What are the things you wish you knew at the very beginning of your journey?


Christian: Well, my journey is still very early, so I don't know how much wisdom I have to offer, but I would offer up a couple of things. The first one is spending a lot of time listening. This is the time to connect with people to really dove deep into what is happening? How things work. Who are the key relationships that we have and perhaps what blind spots do we have? We're really taking a chance to listen and not feel compelled to have not felt compelled to have all of the answers right now. And being the person who's the foremost expert, your role is really to understand and to facilitate and to eventually be able to execute on what your mission is. But there are many different ways to achieve that. So listening is a really big key. 

I would say the second one is doing your research, so really taking the time to inform yourself through academic publications and through other sources that have credible, have credible evidence behind them, whether they're surveys or otherwise, and that methodologies are sound in both their design and execution. There's nothing worse than thinking you have the best piece of research that's going to inform what you're going to do, only to find out that the actual procedure and the actual methodology that was used to get to that is inherently flight.

And I would say go into situations, particularly if you have power and if you have influence to the way of assets and resources to not have power over mindset, to say I'm here to impose my help upon you, but very much power with mindset, understanding that yes, you have a certain amount of money that you have and you want to give it to these groups and to a degree you want to have control realizing that that other side also has a significant amount of expertise in that area and resources in that area that you shouldn't take for granted and that the power dynamics should be equal so that it's not one side unduly pressuring the other to engage in something. And in the first place, you obviously want to appear like the most knowledgeable person, and there's a certain degree that you have to exercise that, but also exercise a degree of vulnerability to share that.

You know, I don't have all the answers right now, and that's OK. And we together as a team, as a network, as a society more broadly are going to find out what the answers to these questions are. It's going to take some time and we're going to make some mistakes and we're going to knock some things over and potentially break some things, but nothing that we can't repair if we work together. So I think some of those would be my pieces of advice right now. And just stay, just stay resolute that things will get better.


Optimy: When it comes to different resources. Do you have any advice?


Christian: So I think for your listeners who are in Canada, I would highly recommend listening to groups like Imagine Canada. They have a lot of work around corporate community investment, which they do terrific work on, and have informed a lot of the information that I share with a lot of my friends and peers.

I would say Volunteer Canada as well. When you're thinking about how to safely involve your company in volunteering efforts because right now it's particularly complicated feel like we could have an entirely different conversation about how do you engage? How do you engage your employees to volunteer during this time, which might be of interest in the future? I would say as well some other good resources are future of good. They do a lot of work around social good in general, and they do fantastic work there, a free publication with a membership option and I highly recommend the membership option.

Our school, we put out a lot of resources on the panel will be Carleton Dossier Slash the panel at. We always are talking about these things beyond the big sale from more of a practitioner standpoint, but from an academic standpoint as well, there are different groups out there Answer and CAIR, which is a big conference around the social economy research that shares a lot of interesting publications.

There's a number of different schools across the United States and Canada, more so in the U.S., but some out of our school in Canada that talks about CSR and volunteerism and things of that nature. And I think just listening in on some conversations on Twitter as well, I find that Twitter and LinkedIn are vast treasure troves of people who are willing to share their resources for free or for a very modest cost. And the generosity there has been amazing during this time, and I know that I've been learning a lot about the CSR space, around partnerships and things of that nature. And yeah, so those would be some of the places that I would suggest people start with. And kind of go down that rabbit hole from there and don't be afraid to look through the reference notes, when it comes to what things are, what things are being referenced to dove a little bit deeper down the rabbit hole where it's appropriate.


Optimy: During this COVID 19 crisis. A lot of people have been talking about online volunteering. It's a very controversial topic. Some people don't trust it that much. What are your thoughts on that?


Christian: I think there's a couple of things to consider with online volunteering. The first is thinking about the impact that you want to have and recognizing what you're trying to get out of your volunteering experience as the person who's looking to volunteer. I think that it's great if we want to go out and engage in some type of social good activity to benefit the community, but it has to align with what you truly care about and what impact you'd like to have on the community. I think the next part is looking for those organizations that you trust. So if it's a large established organization or a small grassroots group just doing a bit of research and figuring out, you know, which one do, I think I could have my desired type of impact through and what I ultimately want to bring to the table with them.

I'd say to you, I don't discount doing things within your own neighborhood like it's nice to have the allure of doing something for a big, you know, a big, sophisticated organization, and they definitely need the help. But consider different mutual aid groups or different service groups or different community associations that might be operating in your neighborhood. That way, you don't have to travel super far and you can still do things with them, whether it's virtual or otherwise. And I think don't I think it's also about your comfort level of technology. 

You want an organization that's going to be proficient in using technology. I know some of my colleagues, Adam Janes, who works on the Beyond the big sell team with me. He's talked a lot about how to use technology, whether it's Slack or Trello or others to not just deliver different tasks, but also really build a sense of community and do a lot of listening to what your volunteers might like and also hearing about some of the challenges that that might be present that you have a blind spot for. And that goes back to our conversation about why listening is so important right now.

And I think a lot of groups are going to be looking to their companies to look at how they can contribute via volunteering. Maybe they don't have the best means in terms of a financial position, but maybe they're able to go and do some remote stacking of our collection of food products or donations or do things in the workplace to be able to help the communities that are most impacted that they live in. I think there's a lot of potential for online volunteering and there has been for years, if not decades before this, probably closer to years with the technical sophistication that we have. I wouldn't discount it. I think it just it's weighing some of those questions that you might have yourself and doing a bit of research. But ultimately, you know, I think volunteering gives us a sense of power that a lot of us has have lost. And giving people back some sense of power right now is a valuable thing to make them feel like they're a part of the community and that you know where we're in this together and that will make it through it through our collective efforts. 

 

Optimy: Do you think most of the changes caused by COVID 19 will stay with us? And which ones will come back to the old normal? 


Christian: Yeah, I think you're going to see a lot more. I think you'll see a lot more digital convening a lot more digital engagement, a lot more digital service provision. I think that is probably here to stay is we've gained so much insight and expertise, whether you're in a part of the sector that deals with providing services for refugees and newcomers to a country or whether it's around telemedicine or something to that effect. I think those will probably be here to stay. In terms of the sustained levels of funding for things like hospitals, other health care organizations, that's hard to tell. I mean, I think it depends on the economic situation that we're going to see and governments focus areas on these things.

So I think that one's a little more complicated that I don't have a great answer for. And if I had a crystal ball, I feel like I'd be making a lot of money. But I think in terms of I, I hope that as a result of this, we don't just build back to how things were. We make a conscious effort and put resources behind how do we redesign things so that they're even better than they were before? They're not. They won't be perfect. And I think if we go in with a mindset continually of making things better as opposed just to fixing them, that's a better way to think about it then. Yeah, I think that's a better way to think about it.


Optimy: When it comes to keeping in touch with local communities. It can be hard at times to make sure this communication happens properly. What are your thoughts on that? 


Christian: When it comes to two foundations and other large groups, or even small groups reaching out to communities. I think this is your opportunity to build relationships with folks who you're serving, so a great first step is having when it comes to, you know, deploying some of your funding. If you're not as familiar with the community needs, now is your chance to build a bit of a network of perhaps your grantees or past grantees to help inform where the money goes in the community in the fastest way possible. A nice luxury, if you would. That is a nice opportunity that foundations have is that they can act faster than a lot of governments can in terms of getting money to where it needs to go. Not the same scale as the government can, but it can get things out fast, and that's really important right now. We don't know where to send that money unless you have a good sense of who is actually in need and what the needs are, and not just what you think the needs are based on what you've perhaps been hearing anecdotally.

I think to you, it's a chance to build in feedback mechanisms. So having whether it spots on your website or even just having, you know, some staff or a dedicated to listening to people's stories and experiences to gain insights, I think it's through things like town halls virtually done that. Facilitated properly so people have a chance to actually speak and they're prepared beforehand, but also those individuals reach out as some groups don't have the capacity right now to attend those types of things, and they're focused on keeping their head above water and just going and asking, you know, who are some of the players that we don't know about right now and who around this table right now? Who can you bring to this table that doesn't that isn't necessarily represented or that we don't know about that? You do what you think is doing important work. So a bit of that, you know, let's bring a friend, someone who necessarily wouldn't be at this table in the first place and starting there. I think that's an easy place to start. And also looking around and saying, like, are the people around this table reflective of the community we're trying to serve.


Optimy: On that topic? Many organizations have a hard time making data-driven decisions. Do you think creating forums with the right questions can help with that?


Christian: And at this point, in particular, it's about what's the minimum information that I need. And maybe it's not reaching out to new organizations, but it's thinking about the existing organizations that you work with and have a good track record with and, you know, provide important services. And maybe even leaving it up to them to say, Can you help us disseminate some of this information? I mean, it's not the best-case scenario in that you lose out on some other groups, but in terms of speed and expediency, it might be a best-case scenario. So I think that's something important to think about and agree about the form side of things now, even at some foundations. But I sit on there that a review committee for we always talk about, do we really need to collect all of this information to give us a clearer picture? And is the amount of information that we're requesting? I guess in line with the money that we're giving out. If you're getting them to fill out, you know, a 30 to 40-page grant application for five thousand dollars, that's just that's not fair. That's not that's not fair. That's not justice, but equitable. So I would say index what you're asking for with what your index, what you're prepared to give with what, what you're asking of them to provide. 


Optimy: Do you have other tips and insights on social investment and corporate citizenship in times of COVID 19? 


Christian: So in terms of what I hope people remember during this time, if their CSR practitioners or corporate citizenship practitioners or any groups that really are providing a lot of those private resources for those public purposes, I'd say go in with the mentality of having power with people and not power over. I think that part is so key right now to not create those unfair power dynamics because there is a lot of groups who are disadvantaged and you would hate for them to abandon their work and force them to drift on their mission. Because you just want to find a certain initiative, be flexible, and how you provide funding right now. If you want the partners tomorrow, you have to be willing to find them today. Don't lean out, but lean in where you can in terms of supporting the communities where you live through those different community investments and whatever assets you have to offer while also taking care of yourself and your people. And yeah, and I would say that the future obviously will be uncertain, and I think that if we, we go through it intending to make things better and improve things as time goes on and not just to fix things. You know this is the time that we have to take this opportunity to do exactly that and said, listen, learn and figure out what we can do to improve these systems and these organizations overall and even improve the way that we do things. 


The CSR scenery is now very different than what we knew a few years ago, and that is a good thing: to remain consistent and efficient, we all have to adapt to our society and its ever-changing structures. We also discuss the topic here but discussing is not enough: we also provide you with some of our best tips to make sure that you won't forget all the learnings and lessons from the pandemic and make sure to include them in your CSR and social impact projects.