CSR Should Be on Its Own, But Not Siloed

If you look at ten different companies, you might see ten different potential structures for CSR work. That’s because there hasn’t been a clear consensus about where CSR should sit within a business. But the way CSR is positioned in a company has a big impact on how it functions and whether it’s successful.  

CSR needs to live as a discrete function within organizations—autonomous and distinct—yet not isolated in a silo away from the broader business strategy. When CSR initiatives are tethered too closely to any one department, you can unintentionally limit their scope and impact. The only exception, perhaps, is when CSR falls under the broader umbrella of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria, where it can contribute to a comprehensive corporate approach to sustainability. 

For corporate and CSR leaders looking to align their CSR team structure with their social impact priorities, it’s important to balance independence with cross-departmental collaboration.

CSR must be its own priority 

The first step is looking at why and how your organization uses and builds CSR programs. 

Too often, marketing departments lead the charge on creating CSR programs that primarily focus on enhancing brand image.  Though that’s often part of the equation, if brand image is the sole focus, , your CSR programs may miss the mark on fostering deep, meaningful connections with local community stakeholders. 

Your company’s potential impact is diluted when CSR is simply a tool for boosting employee engagement or as a reactive measure to satisfy investor expectations and public opinion. While none of these are invalid reasons to pursue CSR, they should not be the sole drivers.

The real power of CSR lies in its ability to put  the core values of a company into action to meet the genuine needs of the communities it serves, thereby creating a strategy that benefits all stakeholders—from employees to investors, from customers to community members.  

When CSR work falls to marketing or HR teams, its success often gets shuffled behind other priorities such as lead generation or employee retention. CSR should be an independent function within the organization, one that collaborates with various departments while maintaining its strategic autonomy. Essentially, CSR must be its own priority. 

When you centralize initiatives under dedicated CSR manager leadership, marketing efforts can still support brand-related objectives, HR can continue to showcase employee satisfaction and retention, and investor relations can highlight the company’s commitment to social impact. However, while seated firmly under one umbrella, CSR goals don’t run the risk of taking a back seat to other objectives, and your company can build more significant relationships with local nonprofits.

Designate ownership of CSR programs

Once you’ve positioned CSR as its own function, designate one dedicated individual or team to own CSR. Ownership does not mean operating in isolation. Rather, it’s about having someone at the helm to steer your overarching CSR strategy, while actively incorporating input and inviting collaboration from across the company.

Begin by gathering key stakeholders from across the organization. This group should include leadership, those already involved in CSR initiatives, and any individuals eager to contribute to your company’s CSR efforts. The goal of this gathering is to clarify roles, determining who will take on the leadership and coordination of CSR efforts and who will support the day-to-day operations.

With a CSR manager or team in place, the next step is to identify and engage individuals or teams across the organization who bring the necessary skills, expertise, and passion to each initiative. This approach leverages the diverse range of talents and perspectives that exist within your company. Encourage cross-functional collaboration on CSR programs to invite a wide range of insights and expertise to each project, fostering a culture in which CSR is a shared responsibility. 

By centralizing the ownership of CSR programs under a dedicated team or leader and promoting interdepartmental collaboration, organizations can create a robust CSR framework that aligns with their mission, engages employees, and maximizes impact. 

Unite your company under one CSR framework

Modern CSR calls for a single, cohesive framework that unifies your organization’s social impact goals. Instead of isolated programs scattered across your organization, you can develop a comprehensive strategy that connects the disparate pieces and, in turn, makes every program stronger.

Consider, for instance, how companies historically delineate a separation between Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and CSR. Angela Parker, cofounder of Realized Worth, a corporate social responsibility consulting firm, believes this separation shouldn’t exist, emphasizing that the underlying goals of these initiatives are fundamentally aligned.

Angela Parker headshot
Angela Parker, CEO and cofounder of Realized Worth

“Personally, I think it is absurd that there’s been any separation between corporate volunteering, giving social impact, and what’s happening in the DEI space with ERGs, with people leading that space,” says Parker. “I cannot understand it. I cannot make sense of it because the goals are—or at least should be—the same.”

CSR can learn from DEI and vice versa. For example, as Parker notes, DEI organizers have said for years that volunteerism must involve doing “with communities” instead of “to communities.”

“Most of the time, in order to drive social movements, to change people from the inside out, you have to have experiences over time that are a relationship,” Parker says. “A respectful relationship where we are not going to objectify or save those who we perceive as ‘other.’ Where we are going to learn from and receive from, and be changed by them and be transformed by them.”

Companies should develop a comprehensive program framework that brings together all of their missions and values under one roof. To build such a framework, organizations must first recognize the intrinsic link between DEI, employee engagement, community investment, and sustainability, viewing them not as siloed initiatives, but as complementary components of a single vision. 

To define the interconnectivity between your programs, establish how each initiative contributes to the overarching objectives of your organization. Bringing clarity to how all the separate moving parts contribute to the whole helps to align your efforts and amplify total impact. 

Finally, implement systems to track the performance and impact of your programs. Within that impact measurement framework, make cross-collaboration and program alignment its own goal. Because when programs are deeply connected, it’ll be much easier to achieve the outcomes you’re after.  

Establish channels for communication and collaboration

To facilitate effective collaboration around CSR, your company needs to open channels for ongoing dialogue and partnership. 

Foster a company culture where open, honest communication is not just encouraged, but prioritized. This involves setting up dedicated channels—whether digital forums, email lists, or internal social networks—where CSR program owners and stakeholders can exchange ideas, voice concerns, and offer feedback. By democratizing access to information and discussions, you can give space to a myriad of voices and consider diverse perspectives while planning and executing your CSR strategy.

Regular meetings play a critical role in cementing relationships and aligning your CSR efforts. These gatherings, whether they’re formal strategy sessions or informal check-ins, allow stakeholders to stay abreast of program developments, share successes and challenges, and brainstorm solutions together. By establishing these touchpoints, organizations can create a rhythm of engagement that keeps everyone aligned and motivated.

Meanwhile, use project management tools to create a centralized space where all your CSR initiatives can live. Leverage technology to assign tasks, track deadlines, and monitor progress, keeping everyone involved on the same page. Additionally, these tools can serve as repositories for valuable resources and documentation, keeping knowledge easily accessible for future reference.

By establishing these important channels for communication and collaboration, you’ll keep your CSR efforts cohesive, transparent, and inclusive.

Drive impact together, not separately

Like any corporate initiative, CSR is most successful when it can stand apart from, yet harmoniously align with other departments.To achieve this balance, you need to break down silos, while also commanding the same respect and authority for CSR as any other critical function. This autonomy is essential for CSR to thrive.

Submittable’s modern CSR software stands as a testament to what you can achieve when technology aligns with your organization’s goals—providing a platform for collaboration, communication, and impact measurement that transcends departmental barriers.

The future of CSR is not one of isolation, but one of collective impact, guided by dedicated CSR professionals. Together, we can redefine CSR for the modern era. 

Hsing Tseng

Hsing is a content marketer and ex-journalist who writes about tech, DEI, and remote work. Beyond the screen, she enjoys building custom mechanical keyboards and playing with her dog. You can find more of her work at hsingtseng.com.