CSR Matters: Leading CSR Practitioners Make Predictions for 2018

corporate social responsibility. trends to watch

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post, on January 9, 2018

From record-breaking marches and protests to devastating generational weather events to the strength of the #MeToo movement, in my last piece, I pointed out that 2017 transformed how our society works and lives, which simultaneously created new chapters in the evolution of corporate social responsibility.

With the stakes higher than ever for businesses, I reached out to some of America’s leading CSR practitioners to weigh in with their top CSR lessons learned in 2017. In this second installment of my two-part series, I share what they see as hot trends in CSR for 2018. Success leaves clues and their perspectives throughout this series are worth reading from top-to-bottom.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also put out a few insights of my own.

In the polarized climate we’re living in, I predict that empathy will be the new currency in the marketplace and that everyone will have the opportunity to play an even greater role in shaping CSR’s future. That engagement could take the form of consumers voting with their wallets, a CEO speaking out against social injustice, Millennials electing to work only for companies that align with their values, or Gen-Zers spreading information about a company’s environmental record via social media.

Companies that lack empathy in 2018 won’t control their narrative. Someone else will.

At a time when people are looking for clarity and commitment, the most successful companies must ask themselves:

“What will our legacy be? Do we want a role in shaping it?”

“What societal challenges and social issues consistent with our values are we willing to stand up for?”

“How can we use storytelling to more effectively engage our customers, employees, and stakeholders around our social mission and impact?”

For businesses, the key to answering these questions will be to make those they’re serving, rather than themselves, the heroes of these stories.

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WHAT DO YOU EXPECT TO BE A TOP CSR/SOCIAL IMPACT TREND IN 2018?

Sally Kurtz Schiff, Senior Vice President, Weber Shandwick: “A top trend in CSR in 2018 will be the role of data and analytics in sharpening our understanding of business’s impact on critical social issues. We have seen data and analytics inform how we communicate, making our efforts more targeted and therefore more effective. However, the field of CSR continues to struggle with how to measure impact. As more companies shift away from siloed efforts like corporate philanthropy or volunteerism – efforts often measured by outputs not outcomes – towards CSR as a demonstration of purpose, smarter use of data through artificial intelligence and other innovations will result in more focused strategies, increased accountability, and sustained impact.”

Marc DeCourcey, Senior Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation: “I think we will continue to see how resource constraints drive business decisions, and more importantly, innovation in 2018. Much of our work in sustainability and circular economy is driven by the fact that waste is a resource to be harnessed—not thrown away. The circular economy is a huge opportunity for the business community, and we work with them to determine systems and develop partnerships that can remove resource constraints from their business operations to go circular. Our Beyond 34 project in Orlando, FL is bringing together the local business community with the city and municipalities to see how we can improve recycling rates and drive innovation in the city.”

Danielle Tergis, Founder, The Tergis Group: “Continued emphasis on social impact, how it integrates into business strategy, and influences transparency and engagement. It will be seen in a variety of ways including:

  1. Businesses and organizations further activating and incorporating the UN Sustainable Development Goals into their programs in an authentic and meaningful way.
  2. The importance of businesses, organizations, cities and local governments leading on social impact will grow.
  3. Largely tied into that is consumer trust of brands and companies being at an all-time low, so the relevance of third-party certifications, verifications and commitments with organizations like Green America’s Center for Sustainability Solutions, Partnership for a Healthier America and B Lab’s B Corporation certification will continue.”

Mark Sadovnick, Managing Director, Stanton Chase: “‘Leaders Who Care’ will be the winners. They will attract the top talent, have best results in their talent development, and retention. This will be a movement for management teams to care, and engage with others with the same values and ambitions. Kindness will return to the workplace, as will pride.”

Shannon Alston, Diversity, Inclusion & CSR Project Manager, Sodexo: “We’ve started to see a multi-layered approach to the spectrum of CSR/social impact initiatives, and we can anticipate its further exploration in 2018. For years, organizations have had initiatives ‘housed’ in other departments that might not have been identified as being on the spectrum of CSR—but which are, at their foundations. Going forward, different combinations of initiatives or sectoral overlaps will be explored, creating almost ‘super impact’ initiatives. An excellent example is the coupling of CSR with diversity and inclusion, which is typically an area associated with human resources. For instance, working on the ground with marginalized populations—especially in today’s climate—is going to provide significant benefits in social terms. These multilayered approaches will assist in positively affecting the lives of future generations. The involvement of Millennials will be crucial in this, as will the involvement of their Generation Z counterparts, as they increasingly see CSR/social impact as a business imperative and continue to push the boundaries of its success and explore its potential.”

Clifford Yee, Managing Director, CSR Services, Raffa: “Not sure there is one specific trend that will be greater than another in 2018, but my wish list would be:

  1. To see more companies like Grant Thornton and Nestle support the UN Sustainable Development Goals and get involved in Impact 2030;
  2. To see more companies like West Elm and Campbell’s foster cultures that support their purpose-driven employees find fulfillment; and
  3. To see more corporate leaders embrace the idea that CSR can be more than just environmental sustainability, volunteerism, or corporate philanthropy programs, but rather a system of values that allows businesses to create value through social good.”

Read deButts, President, OTM Partners: “CSR will not just be about action but also about storytelling — effective storytelling through new digital mediums that we use today and ones that we’ll likely begin using in the coming year. Technology is providing the world with a fantastic way to tell stories — with meaning and impact — in a way that will drive greater change and public and media support. The beauty of these new technologies is that we will begin impacting problems and challenges in society faster and at an individual level. In 2018, we expect to see another accelerated advance in digital CSR storytelling and impactful actions that will drive real-time positive outcomes.”

Jessica Cohen, Senior Vice President, Ogilvy: “Consumers are growing more skeptical of brand efforts and increasingly looking for authentic stories that resonate with their background, values and priorities. The most successful companies in 2018 will be those that not only share these values and experiences, but who invest in evaluating their progress and correct course to demonstrate real social impact through their partnerships, products, and programs. The next generation of pioneering companies will embrace and share their learnings as openly and publicly as they do their successes to not only better themselves, but to also better the community of which they are a part.”

Julie Hootkin, Partner, Global Strategy Group: “Year after year, we’ve seen Americans’ appetite for corporate engagement grow. In 2018, that trend will only intensify. An increasing demand for real-time engagement and responsiveness – around macro issues and current events – will require companies to be more prepared and more nimble than at any time in the past. In fact, our most recent Business & Politics Study underscores that, in our current environment, companies will face a real penalty for inaction – for consumers, for legislators, and for employees, doing nothing is no longer an option.”

Doug Marshall, Managing Director, Corporate Citizenship, Deloitte: “Corporates increasingly looking to participate in broader ecosystem collaborations – together with the public sector and nonprofits—to address and find new solutions for critical societal issues. The key to long-term shared success will require participants to not only forge new alliances, but to think and work together differently to identify innovative solutions that drive real impact. Diverse participation beyond the capabilities of any single entity will be essential to scale and effect lasting change, and by working together collaboratively we have the potential to make a true impact that matters.”

Jonathan Halperin. Founder & President, Designing Our Future: “As the political battle worsens in 2018 in the U.S., and as facts and reality come under further assault, authenticity is the business principle for 2018. Companies that view CSR as window-dressing or a short-term marketing campaign will lose customers and market share to companies authentically embedding purpose into culture, operations, products/services, KPIs and structure.”

Alison DaSilva, Executive Vice President of Cone Communications: “Top trends to watch for in 2018 include:

  1. Companies and CSR practitioners are going to move beyond Millennials and start focusing on Gen Z. What we’re seeing now as Gen Z comes down the pipe is that CSR is starting to be about ‘table stakes.’ It’s all about ‘a higher purpose.’ ‘What is a company’s role in society? How are they adding value to my life?’ That’s where we’re going to see CSR pivot and be concerned with what a company’s real purpose in society is.
  2. We’ll see companies be more thoughtful about how and when they engage, in order to make sure that they are looking under the hood and ‘walking their talk’ before they come out with a move.
  3. We’ll also see more mess-ups. I think we have already seen a few of those, as companies try to make bold moves without a proper hands-on approach. While I think we’re going to continue to see leading companies take risks and fall down, they will get right back up and come back stronger.
  4. There will be greater focus on social responsibility for tech companies. This sector has focused greatly on environmental business practices, such as energy use and resource conservation. Today, they are being put in the spotlight to address privacy, fake news, discrimination, cyber bullying, and many other social issues. What is their role in positively impacting these issues, and where do they draw the line?”

Graham McLaughlin, Managing Director, Corporate Responsibility, The Advisory Board Company: “Stronger, fully-aligned messaging. Corporations have traditionally shied away from controversy and strong positions, lest their shareholders think they are focused on anything but profit. In 2018, I see corporations taking stronger stands on political and social issues in order to differentiate themselves in the eyes of employees and customers. Companies will position their brands in terms of overall impact, sustainability, and volunteerism so that employees see their role as a valuable part of a life of impact and so that customers better understand how their purchase makes a difference.”

Scott Beaudoin, Group President, ACTIO, Fenton’s new corporate and brand company: “Brand activism becomes commonplace. They say history repeats itself. Humanity occurs in cycles. It’s safe to say that the unshakable spirit of the 1950s and 60s civil rights movements is back. Activism will arguably be a core CSR trend in 2018. This time around, the flames are stoked by the technology that keeps us connected, informed and up-to-date.”

 
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Ryan Rudominer is a communications strategist with fifteen years of experience designing campaigns that break through the noise to engage, educate, and empower target audiences. Ryan excels at using storytelling to connect people to causes and purpose-driven brands and organizations. He blogs for several media outlets about emerging priorities in corporate social responsibility and social impact.