5 Experts on How to Get Executive Buy-in for CSR Programs

Sometimes it can feel like an uphill battle to get support for corporate social responsibility. But in reality, corporate leaders want to support CSR programs. The trouble is they have to balance a lot of competing priorities. It’s on CSR professionals to make a strong case for why social impact programs matter. 

You need to make it easy for executives to say yes to social impact. To do so, make an effort to connect CSR programs to your company’s business objectives. 

During our Impact Studio Conference, five experts shared their takes on what that looks like. 

  • Patricia Toothman, social impact manager at Splunk
  • Jen Carter, global head of technology & volunteering at Google.org
  • Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas, managing director of corporate insights & engagement for CECP
  • Angela Parker, CEO and co-founder of Realized Worth 
  • Carmen Perez, founder and partner at Better Next

Here is their practical advice on how to get executive buy-in for CSR. 

1. Align CSR with the business mission

To be successful for the long term, CSR programs need to be aligned with a company’s business mission. Think about your product or services. What is the impact your business aims to make for your customers? What problems do you solve? Align your CSR program with this mission. 

Splunk bridges the data divide

Patricia Toothman, social impact manager at Splunk

As a data platform, Splunk is uniquely positioned to address the unequal access to data that exacerbates inequity. Though large corporations have been able to leverage data to support their work, most nonprofits and public entities haven’t. That undermines their ability to fully understand and address critical issues.  

For Patricia Toothman, aligning CSR with the business mission meant asking the right questions. “What are those business practices that are super successful? And how can we bring that so we can create more resources and support for social and environmental challenges? So for us at Splunk, this iteration of aligning directly to our business, our new mission of bridging the data divide,” she says. 

Takeaway: Use your company mission as inspiration as you craft your CSR program objectives. 

2. Prioritize strategy over statistics

Don’t get caught up in the statistics about why CSR is important. Yes, employees and consumers want to support companies that invest in their communities. But executives likely already know that. What they need to see from you is a strong strategic framework that can support the work. 

Executives want to hear a compelling case

Angela Parker sees many CSR professionals take the wrong tack when they approach leadership for support. “Relax on making the statistical business case for why these programs achieve engagement and all the other things,” she advises. “Instead, focus on the program itself. Make the program itself and the strategic framework around that program compelling to senior leaders.”

Angela Parker, CEO and co-founder of Realized Worth

To get executive buy-in for CSR, she recommends approaching it in a way leaders will understand. “Demonstrate that it is a strategic program, that it is as legitimate as any other business initiative. That you can speak to how every program, how every person, how every supporter, how every capacity element contributes directly to business-aligned outcomes, contributes directly to a rally cry around social impact for your company—the story your company wants to be known for,” she says.  

Takeaway: Think of CSR like any other business initiative—use the language and frameworks that leaders already use to make decisions. 

3. Emphasize CSR’s connection to future-proofing the business

It’s easy for companies to get caught up in short-term goals. But hitting quarterly benchmarks doesn’t ensure the long-term success of your business. 

To be sustainable for the long term, you need to invest in CSR. Engaging in CSR positions your team to think broadly and deeply about how your company makes an impact. Plus, it encourages you to confront the bigger social and environmental forces that shape the way you do business. 

There’s a big risk in ignoring social impact   

Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas, managing director of corporate insights & engagement for CECP

Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas believes that businesses need to shift how they think about success. “Companies for generations were focused around what shareholders wanted. And shareholders sometimes were only concerned about the short term. They wanted to be able, in the short term, to see a company increase their profits to a point, see the stock go up so they could sell. They weren’t there for a long-term model,” she says. To pivot, leaders need to think about all of their stakeholders—customers, employees, the environment, and communities all along their supply chain. 

Companies that neglect to incorporate social impact into their objectives will likely be left behind. They won’t be prepared for new regulatory standards, stronger employee advocacy, supply chain breakdowns, and human rights issues. “I think there’s a risk for companies to not think about the world in terms of materiality and in the broad sense of what is happening in the world of their stakeholders,” Kari says. 

Takeaway: Show how CSR helps your company be more responsive to all stakeholders, not just those with a financial interest in the business. 

4. Highlight professional development opportunities

CSR programs such as volunteering or corporate giving provide great opportunities for employees to stretch their skills. 

For example, skills-based volunteering, which enables employees to leverage their professional expertise to help a nonprofit organization, can sharpen their technical skills. But volunteering of any kind creates a space to strengthen soft skills such as teamwork, communication, and leadership, which can be transformative

Google gets a boost from employee volunteering 

Jen Carter, global head of technology & volunteering at Google.org

The Google.org Fellowship gives employees the chance to take leave from their regular duties to spend six months working for a nonprofit. Jen Carter sees Google’s investment in the program as good for employees, the community, and the company. “The program is a great career and leadership development opportunity for high-performing Googlers. It enables them to work cross-functionally and strengthen their internal and external networks. It also helps them build better and more inclusive products when they come back to Google,” she says. 

Jen has seen first-hand how volunteer opportunities can transform an employee’s career. “We’ve had a lot of incredible stories about Googlers who maybe tried out a new function on the fellowship and then were able to convert to that role full-time internally—someone who is a data center technician who then became a program manager, someone who is a program manager who became a product manager,” she says. 

Takeaway: Pinpoint how the programs you run make space for employees to sharpen their skills. 

5. Leverage what you already have

Launching a CSR program takes investment. You need to dedicate time, energy, and funds to build infrastructure, establish relationships, and set up reporting. 

It’s much easier to get executive buy-in for CSR if you can show company leaders how you’re leveraging what’s already in place at your company.

Measuring impact doesn’t require starting over

Carmen Perez, founder and partner at Better Next

Measuring social impact is an essential component of an effective CSR program. You need to know how the work you do creates change within your organization and the community. To do so, you can leverage some of the reporting that’s already happening within your company. 

Carmen Perez helps corporate teams build their social impact measurement strategies. Her advice is to use what already exists and then work to build upon it. “The idea of wiping the slate clean and starting completely fresh is highly unrealistic for most companies. And so you have to look at where you are, identify a few low-hanging fruit to get better, and then make sure you and others on the team, with partners, put in the elbow grease to make it happen,” she says. 

Takeaway: Clarify how you can build upon existing infrastructure to support your CSR program. 

Looking to launch a CSR program?

Dig into our Impact Studio on-demand episodes for insights on what it takes to do it right.

Create a CSR program everyone can get behind

Making it easy for company leaders to say yes to CSR will make your job a whole lot simpler. Not only will you have the support and resources you need. You’ll also have the framework to make a strong case for CSR to employees. 

When it comes to CSR, employee engagement is key. The right technology can help you get people involved and keep them engaged. Look for CSR software that can help you grow and evolve with support for volunteering, corporate giving, and community investment. 

Laura Steele

Laura Steele is a social impact writer and editor at Submittable focused on the world of grantmaking and corporate giving. Her work often explores the connection between technology, equity, and social good. She also writes fiction and nonfiction. You can read some of her stories and essays at laurapricesteele.com.