The biggest challenges facing corporate social responsibility leaders

Harvard Business School conducted a recent survey where they discovered 70% of people believe it is important for businesses to make a positive impact. They also found 25% of consumers take a zero-tolerance stance on companies that employ questionable ethical practices.

As this trend continues to develop, businesses must increasingly look to make a social and ethical return as well as a financial one. This has meant the role of corporate social responsibility [CSR] managers and leaders has become ever more important.

CSR departments oversee philanthropic efforts, employee volunteering, social issue marketing, along with other initiatives that promote a positive impact on the communities their organisations operate in, increasing company performance and ensuring sustainable growth.

While these initiatives are undoubtedly important, amidst the shifting working landscape, Great Resignation, and cost-of-living crisis, all contributing to a greater level of uncertainty, many CSR leaders are faced with significant barriers when it comes to implementing their well-intentioned strategies.


CSR leaders are tasked, through their strategies and initiatives, with the long-term engagement of employees in a fun, inclusive, user-friendly way that ultimately meets CSR objectives. However, with hybrid and remote working on the rise, and employees increasingly spread out across regions, and, in the case of global teams, countries, leaders face the challenge of how to properly engage staff.

It is the task of CSR departments to understand what their communities need at the local level, but with remote working, new recruits may very well be from outside of the area where these initiatives are taking place, and therefore feel they have no real connection.

Another key challenge, amidst the Great Resignation, is many companies and departments are already under-staffed, with existing staff experiencing increased workloads as a result. Asking employees to contribute more time or energy towards additional company goals can be difficult, as many feel this only increases their burden of responsibilities.

The problems of engagement are central, and when done right, can have several benefits. Increased participation in CSR initiatives help to keep productivity high and staff turnover rates low, while a survey from Harvard Business Review discovered 67% of the large corporations who took part reported that such initiatives increased employee motivation.

Bolstering buy-in

To be effective, CSR strategies require buy-in not only from employees, but from senior leaders and managers across all departments. Those that do have the support of CEOs and senior management tend to thrive and achieve better results.

This is especially important, as without this, many people within the company tend to regard CSR initiatives as simply tick-box exercises. Attempts to engage employees through evidencing social value, maintaining charity partnerships and setting wellbeing goals are all too often met with apathy and scepticism.

What is required is a strong company culture and the careful alignment of mission and values with CSR objectives. A survey conducted by management consultancy, Blue Beyond Consulting, supported this conclusion, finding that 80% of respondents stated it was important that company values were consistent with their own. Furthermore, these values need to be lived from the top-down, and from the bottom-up in order to be truly impactful. Buy-in from employees and leaders is dramatically increased when everyone within a company is united behind a clear, common, purpose-led goal.

Impact reporting

The ability to report the social value of CSR initiatives is crucial, as it builds credibility, boosts employee engagement, and promotes additional CSR goals and strategies. Impact reporting is also valuable in demonstrating that various initiatives are having a positive, desired effect, both to the business and the community.

The issue arises, however, in that there is no standardised way of collecting and collating impact data. Whether these reports are compiled and produced weekly, monthly or quarterly, they pose several key challenges for CSR leaders.

Impact reporting often takes the form of story-led reporting, which though useful for brand building, can be incredibly time consuming for what is already a particularly admin-intensive job. Additionally, the lack of KPIs can make it difficult to evidence work, and to measure progress and effectiveness.

These challenges when it comes to reporting are compounded by the fact that, especially in larger corporations, CSR strategies are often centralised, with a CSR department that is based at headquarters, but strategies that are implemented and executed at the localised office-level, requiring CSR teams to report back, and further increasing the administrative burden.

Final thoughts

CSR leaders play a vital role in bringing employees, businesses and communities together, and in doing this, ultimately benefit the companies they work for. However, in these unprecedented times, CSR leaders are faced with additional challenges and obstacles, and they require the buy-in and support of everyone involved in the business if they are to achieve positive impact for their organisations and the community at large.