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How CSR Executives Can Lead Strategy in Uncertain Times

By Greg Hills, Managing Director, FSG

Please note: This blog post is authored by both Greg Hills, Managing Director, FSG and Elizabeth Hawkins, Senior Consultant, FSG. 

If you lead your company’s corporate social responsibility or sustainability efforts, you are likely getting calls about the unpredictable political context in the U.S. and around the world.

C-suite leadership, colleagues, employees, and partners are asking you how your company is responding. You and your team are asking yourselves the same questions: What is our company’s role? How is it changing? Should we overhaul our societal engagement portfolio or do we stay the course?

External events, along with increased expectations about the role of companies, challenge business leaders with important questions about how companies can and should engage in societal issues. In our experience, shifts in the external environment present new opportunities, and compel leaders to reassess their company’s motivations for addressing societal issues.

FSG believes that companies can and should adapt and respond to changes in the external environment, while also channeling resources toward a portfolio of sustained, focused, and intentional investments.

Take the unprecedented, CEO-level engagement of U.S.-based tech companies in response to the immigration ban. Leading with bold statements to the media and their staff, and in some cases with charitable support for the ACLU and other organizations doing critical work, Lyft, Airbnb, Google, Amazon, and the 120+ other companies that signed the immigration amicus brief are at the forefront of discussions about the role of companies in society.

It is powerful when companies show this type of leadership. But these moments can be deepened and extended—they represent openings for more persistent and focused attention on the issues that are core to a company’s values, employee base, communities, and customers.

At their best, we’ve seen companies navigate uncertain times by going beyond their initial responses to external factors. Leaders that define their intent, motivations, and how their company can engage in addressing societal issues around the world, can create lasting impact.

Consider GM’s new “North Star for Global Social Impact,” which outlines the company’s portfolio of investments, including business-aligned signature areas of focus in STEM education and vehicle and road safety, alongside responsive community-based giving. Each element of GM’s portfolio aligns with GM’s business priorities, providing strategic clarity for the company’s charitable giving. By articulating its focused and responsive areas of giving, target populations, and desired outcomes, GM has prioritized the issues it seeks to affect in a measurable way.

Shifting from a responsive mindset to developing focused, context-specific, and business-aligned initiatives requires even more than public statements and generous support for worthy nonprofits—it requires deep understanding of societal issues through research, listening, and engagement.

Take the GE Foundation’s recently developed health-focused effort in Boston. To design a signature initiative that leverages the company’s expertise and responds to patient needs in the city, the GE Foundation engaged 150 healthcare leaders, and formed a local advisory board to build a deep understanding and nuanced response to local health challenges. Devoting time and resources to understand the patient experience prepared the GE Foundation with the necessary information to build multi-sector partnerships to address Boston’s addiction and opioid use disorder.

With the right tools and intentionality, corporate foundation and CSR leaders can realize their aspirations for a business-aligned, outcomes-focused societal engagement portfolio.

FSG, in collaboration with CECP, has developed a set of strategy tools and approaches to guide companies in realizing these aspirations. Simplifying Strategy provides tools to help leaders clarify their strategic intent and overall portfolio focus, and Advancing Strategy, our new learning brief, provides guidance on how to effectively shift from initial strategy choices to design and implementation.

These resources outline how corporate foundation and CSR leaders can successfully lead change by taking a structured and data-driven approach to clarifying strategic intent, designing portfolio elements to meet business and societal context, and measuring impact.

Download Advancing Strategy >
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