The Evolution of Corporate Social Responsibility and How to Grow Your Program

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An interview with Dave Stangis, former Chief Sustainability Officer at Campbell Soup Company

Businesses today have a tremendous opportunity, and responsibility, to accelerate change. In this series of interviews with thought leaders in the impact space, dubbed Bright Minds, we’ll explore key trends and considerations where purpose-driven companies and corporate social responsibility programs are multiplying positive societal impact.

Our first thought leader is Dave Stangis, Founder & CEO at 21C Impact and Former Chief Sustainability Officer at Campbell Soup Company. Here are some highlights from that discussion.

From activity to outcomes

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has evolved from tracking activity to measuring impact. Find out what Dave Stangis, former Chief Sustainability Officer at Campbell’s has to say about how leading companies are growing their impact.

Watch the interview ➔

How did you end up in this field and what was the journey like?

A lot of us in this profession are pay-it-forward people – we get meaning out of it. If it felt like work, I probably wouldn’t be doing all the things I have, but it feels like helping which I enjoy. When I started, there was no corporate social responsibility (CSR) profession – we were creating jobs out of thin air and helping others that wanted to work in this space. Often that included teaching students and doing pro-bono work as well. I had the opportunity to work across many different sectors during my career including the utility, tech and food sectors, which was a lot of fun. But one of the reasons I transitioned out of Campbell two years ago was to multiply my impact and help more sectors and people. There are a lot of companies at different points on the maturity curve, and I want to help them create value.

You started in this space before it was mainstream – before terms like CSR, ESG or sustainability were in the media. How would you define these different areas?

When corporate social responsibility was a new thing

When I created the function at Intel, we called it “corporate responsibility.” It was a strategic decision to call it that based on the culture of the company, what we were putting in place at the time and what the external world was asking for. In hindsight, we really created the first proactive environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy in the industry. When we started doing ESG road shows and outreach in 1998, investors said, “well this is new and interesting.” But within ten years, many companies were doing it and now it’s mainstream.

Corporate social responsibility versus other terms like sustainability

There are other terms like socially responsible investment, corporate citizenship and philanthropy, but I don’t really like any of them. We should just talk about what we are doing from a societal or business perspective – the actions and the strategies – because when we name them, we minimize them. It puts people into corners trying to figure out what box it fits in and that doesn’t help the profession. Ultimately, they are all ways of future-proofing the business, from a risk and opportunity perspective.

How has corporate social responsibility evolved over the last 20 years?

Moving from activity to measuring impact

It’s like night and day. There were clearly some companies doing this work in the past, but so many things have changed since then. Technology has changed. Product offerings have changed. Transparency or the ability for the external world to see what’s going on behind the scenes at a company has changed. As a result, companies have really shifted their focus from being good corporate citizens to measuring impact. How many kids have we touched? How many dollars have we given? How many things have we cleaned up? These are activity measures. What leading companies are doing today is seeking to measure outcomes – both the business bottom line and in society.

Bringing it all together for disclosure

It’s also about bringing things together. We just talked about some of the terminology, and I’ve seen corporate social responsibility programs dip into other areas such as governance or the environmental piece. But as companies get more strategic, it’s not corporate citizenship in one corner of the company and sustainability in another. Rather it becomes more of a comprehensive view to pull metrics for transparency – the reporting and disclosure side of things which has gotten a lot more rigorous over the last 20 years.

Are you finding any differences in the way these programs evolve in large companies versus small companies?

What corporate social responsibility looks like in large companies

Yes, there are differences between large and small companies. There are also differences across sectors and locations. In large companies, the CSR program often sits in the public or community affairs part of the organization because those are the teams that are hearing external stakeholder perspectives. Sometimes it moves into a communications or corporate affairs function, where legal, government and public relations come together. But as these programs become more strategic, they are partnering more closely with HR because it’s clearly a benefit to the employees. That’s when you start to see employee resource groups get engaged because it’s a partnership between the employees’ giving and the company’s giving.

Small companies can make an impact with the right partner

Small companies, for the most part, work with what they have because they don’t have as much money or people. They often rely on partners such as the United Way to manage the community relationships because they just don’t have the bandwidth. They may choose to work with an NGO already present in a community or they pick one or two global nonprofits they can work with across all their locations. Disaster relief is a great example. Small companies might channel all their donations to the American Red Cross because they know it’s a good thing that will have impact. Large companies, by contrast, might be on the ground bringing infrastructure, logistics and their core competencies. It really comes down to what is valued inside the company, as well as the capabilities from a resources and human capital perspective.

Do you see any differences regionally across the globe?

There are cultural differences on how people give back. In some countries, it’s more about physically helping as opposed to giving money – I’m giving my time, my effort and my strength to help build and do things. Other countries are more focused on sharing knowledge and helping nonprofits build capacity. Most of the global companies I work with develop a core approach, but they are cognizant of the fact that it needs to be locally adaptable. It’s often a challenge for big companies who are trying to align around a core corporate focus – how do you let employees do what fits with their local culture but also integrate it into the overall story you’re trying to tell?

Local partners and local advocates are key for global CSR programs

The global outreach points tend to be smaller and have fewer people, and it ends up being the human resources person. Sometimes the local office manager ends up leading corporate citizenship because they just don’t have any other bandwidth at that location. They have employees that are passionate about it, so they want to give them opportunities. That’s where local partners come in. It’s tough to find one nonprofit that will align with every geography, so I do think having local partners as well as local advocates within the company end up playing a big role.

Why do you think it’s important for companies to have a corporate social responsibility program? What’s the business case for that?

CSR programs often start out as risk management initiatives

A lot of these programs start out as risk and stakeholder management approaches for things like employee health and safety or being a good corporate citizen in the community. The reason is frequently to avoid negative controversy or a bad reputation. Companies want to be able to grow and attract talent. They want people to be proud to work there.

Managing risk creates new value

But businesses quickly find out that if I manage this risk, I’m creating value. You start to see more investment in time and effort on both the risk and value side, and it begins to scale from there. It could be as simple as employees demanding that their company take a stronger stance on social issues that drives a better approach to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). Or a company may be growing in a community with social and environmental inequity that it feels a responsibility to help solve. Risk in this sense are the drivers that push a business to focus on issues that need to be fixed which, in turn, creates value. And that starts a flywheel.

How do initiatives like workplace giving and volunteering fit into a successful corporate social responsibility program?

There’s always been different parts of the business addressing these areas – community and employee relations, DE&I, philanthropy and corporate citizenship. But businesses are getting better about measuring total giving and thinking about questions like:

  • What are we giving as a company?
  • What part of our giving is coming from our foundation versus employee donations?
  • How are we accounting for volunteer hours or in-kind donations?
  • Are the volunteer hours skill-based or just physically helping the community?

And then we can layer in the workplace benefit part of it too such as matching gifts for employee giving and volunteering. That provides a pretty good picture of a leading company’s total giving and it’s in their best interest to account for that, translate it and communicate it.

Thinking back on your time with Campbell, do you have a favorite employee giving or volunteering story you can share?

One of my favorites wasn’t my idea. It was a social entrepreneurship, social impact, employee volunteerism, sustainability, hunger and food waste story that hit on every single cylinder and it told itself. A local nonprofit partner brought us a problem – they had farmers in New Jersey that were growing peaches for local grocers and 80% of them were not bought because they weren’t the perfect fruit, so they were having to pay to bury them in landfills. What we do as a company is take fresh food and turn it into shelf stable products, so they thought we could do something with it. Maybe we could make a salsa or a soup.

We brought the community affairs team together and came up with a couple of proposals. I had to convince the CEO and general counsel that this was a great idea, and they loved it. If I had tried to bring this from bottoms up, we would have gotten nowhere. With the top aligned, everyone got on board to make it happen. We had lawyers, product formulations, volunteer employees and the pilot plant producing it involved. The program was called Just Peachyi and we did it for six years. We donated it all to the food bank, so we were feeding people, saving the farmers money, and the food bank was generating revenue to invest in their programs. The story just told itself because it was true to Campbell, true to our community and it touched on every one of our strategic pillars.

Is there a maturity curve for corporate social responsibility programs and, if so, what’s the difference between a mature company versus a less mature one?

Mature CSR programs measure value creation

The way I describe the maturity model is it’s about moving from awareness, activity and risk management to something strategic, with a governance process in place to measure the value we are creating. Moving to the right side of the model entails answering questions such as:

  • What is the strategic focus?
  • Is there a governance or accountability model in place?
  • Am I measuring what I say I’m doing?
  • Can I deliver value to both the company and society?

Mature CSR programs also publish content for different audiences

And then there is the publishing aspect. Companies that are doing this strategically and effectively are publishing sophisticated content to different audiences. Investors expect one type of content, while employees and communities expect something else. The 120-page annual CSR or sustainability report, while necessary, isn’t going to meet the needs of these different audiences. That entails thinking about what each audience needs, how you will communicate to that audience and what you want the audience to do with it. Is it a thought leadership piece for awareness? Will there be a call to action? Is it a recognition tool for employees? These are all things you draw out from the main report and use in a more effective way.

How does a company move to the right side of the curve where they are recognized by different entities as being a leader?

Be proactive but consider your resources and what type of company you are

A lot of it depends on the resources you’re able to allocate and whether you are a private or public company. I was recently talking with a big private company that wants to be a leader in their sector, and they were looking at which external frameworks could help them improve. They chose something like the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and the B Corp assessment.ii Those are different assessments, so it’s important to understand what each tool is assessing. Do you want to focus on disclosure or strategic integration? Do you want to focus on mission or your workforce?

Part of it is knowing the stakeholders, the process and the methodology to understand where the gaps are and make sure the assessment aligns with your goals. If there’s a particular list your company wants to be on, find out how they get the data and calculate the rankings. Then you can put an annual process in place to generate the data for that ranking. It becomes a proactive rather than reactive strategy.

Start with your goals before deciding on a framework

The conversation I would have with a small or private company is what’s important this year or for the next two years? Let’s go find the right assessment for that – who cares what the external world thinks about it. Let’s focus on it internally and then see if we can use it externally. If you’re a large publicly traded company, you’re already being judged by external bodies that are pulling data from your website. In that case, the top priority is managing it to make sure the data is accurate first. And that takes some effort.

It seems like that would take a lot of resources – what’s the best way for small companies to get to that point?

It takes a few things. You need to have some critical mass inside the company that believes this is important. Is it something we’re just reacting to or is it something we’re going to focus on? It can be a lift especially if you’re not doing it now. At Campbell, I had one person that it was their full-time job to manage the reporting and internal processes for generating content and responding accurately.

Once you pick a reporting framework, it’s easy to publish to other ones

But once you’ve established a reporting process for a framework like the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), iii it’s not a huge lift to align to other frameworks. It’s more about structure and organization, so companies can easily pull what they need to cross-reference the work to other frameworks like the UN SDGs, UN Global Compact, SASB, TCFD, etc.iv I’ve been seeing more companies do things like attaching a SASB, TCFD and SDGs to an abbreviated GRI as their reporting output.

What advice would you give a company trying to start a corporate social responsibility program?

Evolving from a passion project to a CSR program takes internal alignment

The first hurdle is moving it from a skunkworks initiative or somebody that’s doing it because it’s a passion project to getting some recognition and resourcing. That is yes, this is important enough for us that I’m going to allow you to do it, and I’m going to give you some additional resources for it. You do need some people resources – not a ton but you do need some people – for tracking and managing stakeholders. Meeting with nonprofits, talking with the community and listening to employees takes an individual’s time. But the biggest thing is getting that internal alignment.

Communicating the value to the business is critical

Often it is the person who has the passion for it bringing it to decision makers to say here’s what I’m thinking – give me your feedback. Or maybe that person gets a core group of people that are willing to buy-in and support it. They become the example for others, and that’s what unlocks the rest of the movement in terms of partnerships and investments in resources like data systems and reporting. The way to get people aligned is to address what is the value to the business – not just what is the value to me as a person passionate about this, but what value can this bring to the business, our employees and society. Helping the company understand the return on investment is critical.

How have some of the events over the past year such as COVID-19 and social unrest impacted corporate social responsibility?

It’s really forced companies to think harder about what they do and how they support their employees. What does a trustworthy workplace look and feel like? What will it take for people to come back to a workplace and feel good about being there? It’s a whole different world now, and the ability to measure the things on the right side of the maturity curve will be important for making those things stick.

The pandemic hit everything, and a lot of corporate citizenship programs got hit as well. In person volunteering evaporated, so nonprofits and companies had to pivot. How do you meet the volunteer hour goal now? There was some damage in the churn, but I think they’ve come out better and stronger. For instance, some of the virtual volunteering examples I’ve seen have been very good.

What inspired you to write your books?

It goes back to the first question because it was about paying it forward. Those books (see below) are labors of love. We never saw a dime for any of them by design. I wrote them with Katherine Smith who is the Executive Director of the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College. I had an outline of the book in my head when I was at Intel that was basically ten words or ten questions as the basis for each chapter. I never got around to writing it until I worked with Katherine. She’s a systems thinker in a different way, so it worked well for fleshing it out with examples, case studies and the practical here’s how you do it.

21st Century Corporate Citizenship
The Executives Guide to 21st Century Corporate Citizenship2

The first book we wrote is for practitioners. If they go through the book and answer the questions at the end of each chapter, they will have a strategy. Then we wrote a version for executives which is more about how they can make sure their companies are equipped to deliver it. They have similar content but from different angles. It was about trying to help the profession.

What are some key takeaways from your books?

It covers a lot of what we talked about here, but to quickly summarize:

1. Find your purpose for what your unique differentiator is as a company and leverage that in this work.

2. Drive focus and direction up front with a governance model.

3. Make sure you have systems in place to manage and measure it.

4. Find ways to tap into all the ages and stages of your workforce.

5. Build a giving program.

  • What assets do you have to give?
  • Do you need a foundation?
  • Are you just going to do corporate giving?
  • What role will employees play?

6. Develop a plan for all the other pieces – partners, communication strategy by audience, etc.

7. How do you make sure it sticks using rewards, recognition, compensation, etc.?

8. What will the feedback loop be?

9. Where do you have gaps and how will you close them to keep the program going?

What advice would you give to a young person wanting to enter this field?

Now is the perfect time. Think about what you bring to the table because you can do this in marketing and communications, finance, investor relations, operations or supply chain. You don’t have to be a corporate social responsibility or sustainability professional to get the job. A lot of companies have moved from the first step on the maturity model to the second step, so they’re looking to fill a gap in expertise. Think about that one piece of expertise you can bring to the company, whether it’s digital communications, climate change, or social impact.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

We covered a ton but the key takeaway message I want to deliver is this: Don’t think this is too much or it’s too broad or it’s too much noise. There’s a ton of opportunity for young people. There’s opportunity for good systems thinking for people that have good peripheral vision, but there’s also opportunity to bring specific expertise to companies. There is no one size fits all. It’s not just one corporate citizenship or sustainability job anymore. And there’s going to be even more opportunity as companies look to simplify reporting frameworks and data systems.

Learn more about Dave Stangis and watch the interview.

You may also be interested in other Bright Minds interviews.

Julie Yamamoto

Julie Yamamoto

Julie is a Content Strategist at Bright Funds. She works closely with clients to deliver compelling content that inspires action. Her work has been featured in several enterprise and nonprofit digital channels, as well as GreenBiz and American Forests. She is a trained Climate Reality leader with a passion for environmental topics (technology for good, sustainable business, forests and carbon markets, climate change, conservation and biodiversity). In the future, she hopes to start a nonprofit focused on harnessing creativity to protect nature.