Is it substance, or form?

Is CSR anything more than an exercise in form over substance? Absolutely. But not many companies get that. At least not yet.

The most forward-thinking companies understand that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is not only about “doing good.” Rather, a well-designed CSR program increases the significance of the business itself, not only by creating improved conditions for the community as a whole, but also by supporting the growth of a successful commercial enterprise. In today’s marketplace, well-organized, well-executed CSR activities are critical factors in driving business improvement, brand engagement, customer loyalty and employee retention.

The hitch is that CSR doesn't work unless it is real. When it comes to measuring the effectiveness of a CSR strategy, here's the statement companies dread most from a consumer: "That company is just trying to make itself look good." Ouch. No one wants CSR to be a fake. Not the company, not the employees, not the consumers, not the community. Unfortunately, that's often what happens when well-intentioned executives tack on an employee volunteer program to check a box. Or buy a few tables at community events. Or slap together a cause marketing program by designing a fancy logo with ads to match. That's classic form over substance.

Today's employees and consumers are savvy enough to know CSR window dressing when they see it. That's because giving is part of the lives of most Americans and very much encouraged by popular culture. Today’s consumers cast a wide net around what it means to give back and be socially responsible. They define “doing good” as a combination of activities that together create a socially responsible lifestyle and define an overall giving footprint. And it’s not just about giving money to a charity of choice, directly or through a foundation. Today’s giving equation includes volunteering in the community, recycling and respecting a sustainable environment, serving on civic boards and committees, celebrating favorite causes by supporting and attending community events, marketing with a focus on a charitable cause, purchasing products and services that include a charitable element, and donating canned goods or used clothing to people in need. The social consciousness of America is growing, rapidly. And Americans can spot a phony.

CEOs and marketing executives want to make it real. Every CEO must pay attention to CSR trends, whether the business he or she leads is private, public, large or small. Market pressures are heating up. Similarly, using CSR effectively is critical to the success of any marketing effort. Most of the time, CSR activities are going on across a company in various departments, creating inefficiency, extra cost and, perhaps most damaging, diluting the brand’s overall voice.

But how is CSR substance created?

Substance over form occurs only through a thorough understanding of social responsibility and the dynamics involved from a philanthropic, regulatory, governance and sustainability perspective. This makes it difficult for an executive team and marketing departments to develop meaningful content that will be viewed by audiences as legitimate and authentic. With the heightened social consciousness of Americans and the increasing scrutiny of charitable causes, social responsibility efforts must be legitimate or they will be viewed consumers and employees as disingenuous. This means companies need strong CSR frameworks based on best practices, activated through a series of meaningful experiences and evidence of impact that can be deployed into brand and delivered to engage audiences. CEOs and their marketing teams need to get educated about CSR. And they need to get organized. And then they need to get going.

Six critical elements drive an effective CSR program: mission, alignment, engagement, communication and sales, and evaluation and reporting. Only after a company has established a solid framework for its CSR program can it move into action to create the substance required to secure authentic brand engagement. A CSR program should not be viewed only as a budget expense. A CSR program built on an effective framework is an asset to leverage the company’s growth. Specific, tactical steps must be part of an ongoing action plan to use CSR to drive brand engagement, engage existing and new consumers, enter new markets, launch new products, increase sales, and recruit and retain talent.

Substance over form. Make that leap in your CSR program and see how far it can take you toward your business goals. Chances are, you'll be pleasantly surprised.