Tuesday 4 February 2020 4:30 am

Demystifying corporate social responsibility: It's not just about 'do-gooders'

Ben Hayman is managing partner at brand purpose agency Given
Managing partner, Given

When Nationwide Building Society asked us to maximise the impact of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) function, we were very excited.

Nationwide already had a deeply embedded sense of social responsibility. The brand was born out of a social purpose, and since 2007 it has been committed to investing at least one percent of its pre-tax profits into the support of good causes.

But its social investment team had a broad approach, and they felt that their impact was being diluted. Like many CSR teams, they were involved in plenty of positive, worthy activities, but lacked focus.

Subsequently, there was an opportunity to do so much more. Here are the key insights from our work with them.

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Get stakeholders involved

The first step was to get focused on a big idea. It is often difficult deciding on focus, especially if it means stopping other good work, but a great way to help decide is to involve stakeholders in the process. This will give you confidence in your strategy, and an understanding of what matters to your colleagues.

So in 2017, Nationwide put it to a vote of its members. The result highlighted that it should work exclusively on housing. This formed the central pillar of its approach.

Use your firm’s expertise

It might seem obvious — but often CSR teams are not aligned to deliver work that fits with the wider strategy.

In Nationwide’s case, the firm had 18,000 colleagues, 15.9m members and a presence in over 650 communities across the UK.

Therefore, it already had an incredible level of expertise which could be directed towards housing issues.

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Stay true to your goals

Once you have a focus, tie it down and create the framework for delivering on it.

Divide up resources and funding based on your overall objective and make sure all projects are assessed under this lens.

Nationwide now runs three distinct programmes of activity in housing, each with their own focus — community grants, charity partnerships (with Shelter and St Mungo’s) and the Oakfield housing development.

It is sometimes challenging for people to stop working on initiatives they care about, but having a more single-minded and strategic approach will maximise your effectiveness.

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CSR is about opportunity

The scope and quality of work which takes place in CSR and sustainability teams is regularly misunderstood.

They have not always been a fully integrated function and haven’t been seen as hubs of innovation, value creation, or opportunity — and they have sometimes struggled to get the buy-in or attention of big businesses.

But it is important that CSR teams are able to get the platform to operate at a higher level.

They must be aligned with companies’ overall purpose, have clear outcomes linked to business goals and be driven by a big idea that captures the imagination of colleagues.

This is something Nationwide has done brilliantly. 

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