As a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practitioner, you may wonder: How can I more effectively plan and execute our company’s social impact programming? Well, look no further. As we dive into 2023 and look to improve our social impact initiatives, I would challenge us to first examine and learn from the major trends we saw in 2022 to help us more thoughtfully look at what’s on the horizon.
When I think back to what the social impact landscape experienced last year, a handful of items come to mind. First, the growing expectation for CSR teams to apply an equity lens to all aspects of CSR became more prevalent. Second, there was a spike in resourcing focused on sustainability and climate action. This isn’t surprising given the increased regulatory landscape around how companies report and disclose their environmental and human impacts. This has had the unanticipated effect of social impact perhaps taking a bit of a back seat at some companies as they reallocate resources towards their environmental programming.
Benchmarking, data-collection and storytelling - while not a new focus - also became must-haves as brands are expected to be able to collect and report on their contributions to the community.
With that in mind, here are the top six social impact trends to watch - and plan for - in 2023:
1. Continued integration of DEI principles in social impact work
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) principles promote the equitable treatment and participation of all people with a focus on the underrepresented and those subjected to discrimination due to their racial and ethnic background, gender identity, disability, etc.
Organizations are increasingly expected to apply these principles throughout the development of all their activities. And as social impact professionals, this also applies to our work. One thing to consider when doing so is how to more purposefully define DEI criteria when deciding which projects or organizations to fund. For example, you might consider funding small, early-stage organizations that are innovative and have enormous potential, even if they present greater risk of failure. Or you may give greater consideration to supporting organizations based on the composition of their governance bodies, with a focus on minority-led organizations.
Another practice to consider is to support operating expenses for community-based organizations in the form of unrestricted grants, which ultimately gives them more flexibility in managing their expenses and will help them achieve greater programmatic success in the long-run.
Be creative! Don’t be afraid to take chances.
Over time, you can evaluate your approaches to see which ones best fit. Toss aside those that don’t work but keep and improve upon the practices that are working.
2. Employing a solid data-collection and reporting strategy
Reporting and disclosure requirements skyrocketed in 2022 and are not slowing down in 2023. That means data is even more critical than ever. But thinking about the most effective way to collect and report it is no easy task. One of the most common pitfalls is not defining objectives that are measurable. You should be opting for a combination of general goals that are easily understood within your organization - such as the participation rate of your employees in volunteer programs - and also some cause-specific goals that measure your real impact from one moment to the next.
Collecting impact data isn’t easy because the data which best reflects a positive outcome frequently rests with your partners, not you. So you will have to work with them to understand the impact of your support.
You may also find that they do not yet have well-developed data collection and reporting capacity, which is an area you can work with them on to benefit you and them in both the near-term and the longer-term.
3. Doubling down on social impact, the “S” of “ESG”
As mentioned, there is a bit of a lopsided focus at the moment by companies on sustainability issues.
But social impact initiatives (the “S” within ESG) are also more important than ever. This includes more traditional CSR functions like corporate philanthropy, employee volunteerism, community investment initiatives, and more.
And even during challenging economic times, while the initial instinct might be to reduce the funding for social impact programs, this will likely be shortsighted. In fact, social impact work can help make a business more resilient during an economic downturn by improving brand reputation among all stakeholders, including investors, donors, the community, and employees.
Instead of pulling back, this may be a good opportunity to reinforce your work.
4. Applying a bottom-up approach that captures the voices of employees
As employees seek greater involvement in how their companies make an impact, you should be thinking more deeply about how to bring them into the process in a way that best captures their voices.
One way to do this is by employing a bottom-up approach that gives more “voice and choice” for employees in how they volunteer, also called the “democratization of volunteerism.”
This doesn’t mean tossing out strategy or process. Having set guidelines, parameters and processes in place is critical to success, especially as you seek to align with larger global frameworks like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
But it does mean finding the right balance between strategy and the voice of your employees - who are the ones actually serving in the community. If your company has ERGs - or Employee Resource Groups, sometimes called Affinity Groups - you can engage with them as one way to integrate the voice of your people.
5. Strengthening and leveraging internal and external partnerships
Cutting across all of this are the strategic partners you support. Without your community-based partners, you are unlikely to achieve your CSR goals. So, work hard on strengthening the partnerships you have in place.
You can think about ways to be less transactional and move towards being more relational in how you support both internal and external partners. For your external partners, regular check-ins can create opportunities not just for updates on grants or your support, but to listen to these partners and learn about challenges and opportunities they have.
Beyond writing checks and providing volunteers, there may also be other opportunities internally to support a partner like in-kind contributions they cannot get elsewhere. You can create cross-functional teams internally that can be activated when an opportunity to support a community partner presents itself. Taking a genuine interest in the success of community partners will increase your company’s social license and improve the impact you make. Think boldly and innovatively.
6. Digitizing project management to optimize social impact
We’re in a digital era and there are many tools available to create efficiencies in project management, data-collection and reporting. The expectation that CSR teams make data-informed decisions is here to stay, and the use of technology plays a critical role in being able to keep up. Take advantage of these tools. Spend the time to define your data-collection and reporting strategy, and then manage the exchange of information between stakeholders in a streamlined way.
For example, if your CSR team is geographically centralized and your stakeholders spread out across the country or the world, leaning on a technology platform can work wonders for you.
We know that coordinating all of this manually is inefficient. And while Excel might work up to a point, eventually the manual tasks become overwhelming - especially if you receive hundreds of applications, have thousands of volunteers and if you wear more than one hat in your company.
I continue to be surprised by how many of my peers tell me in casual conversations that they have yet to adopt a technology solution to support their enterprise-focused CSR work. They are readily available and affordable for most organizations.
There is no better time than the beginning of this year to look at your options and reap the efficiencies and cost-savings. There are many ways to go about finding the best solution for your needs, but it first starts with a conversation with the experts!
In a year where many businesses care about efficiency, having a platform that can help manage your programming will give you significant advantages. Being able to manage manual tasks on one platform will ensure that you can stay focused on the objective at hand: making a meaningful impact in the community and across the world.
About Jerome Tennille and The Uplift Agency
Jerome Tennille, MSL, CVA is the Director of Social Impact & ESG at The Uplift Agency, a social impact and sustainability firm that helps businesses operate in ways that are more responsible and sustainable. Visit The Uplift Agency’s website and follow Jerome and The Uplift Agency on LinkedIn!
Want to learn more about the top social impact trends we expect to see in 2023? Watch our interactive webinar ‘6 Social Impact Trends to Watch in 2023’, hosted by Aaron Szeto from Optimy and with guest speaker Jerome Tennille, MSL, CVA, featuring interactive polls and a Q&A session!