Employer practices

How Companies Can Modernize Their Approach to CSR: Strategies for a Successful Company, Workforce, and Society

Oluwasekemi OdumosuFebruary 27, 2024

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a self-regulated business model by which companies demonstrate their commitment to improving society. In recent years, the perception of the CSR business model has evolved significantly, driven by increased social media attention to pressing societal issues. Originally centered on minimizing environmental impact, CSR is now confronted with new demands arising from the COVID pandemic's exacerbation of challenges faced by marginalized communities. Consumers expect companies to address disparities they may contribute to, such as gentrification and occupational segregation. However, CSR efforts may fall short of stakeholders’ expectations in three critical ways.

Three Problems with Traditional CSR Practices

  1. Overreliance on Other Agencies
    Many companies overly emphasize environmental sustainability, volunteering, and philanthropy as the core of their CSR initiatives while failing to consider how their business practices impact the very problems they allocate time and money to address through partnerships with other agencies.
  2. Lack of Institutional Commitment to CSR Initiatives
    CSR is frequently perceived as an external add-on rather than being aligned with the companies’ core business strategies or integrated into their daily operations. This perception is less compelling to stakeholders who increasingly value the CSR business model and may scrutinize its integration within a company's core operations.
  3. Limited Data Disclosure
    CSR is often qualitative, serving to build awareness of a company's initiatives, while reporting tends to be more aligned with public relations and advertising. In contrast, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) practices quantify those respective areas, primarily for investors, and are often buried within reports. Both lack standardized reporting and may not offer transparent data for reporting CSR goals, restricting disclosure of information that could be perceived as unfavorable.
Icon of hand holding a dollar sign

73 percent of investors indicated that efforts to enhance environmental and societal impact influence their investment decisions

Source: 2019 Aflac CSR survey


94 percent of consumers and 87 percent of investors consider it somewhat or very important for large companies to address the responsibility of treating employees fairly

Source: 2019 Aflac CSR survey

Three Solutions to Modernize CSR Practices

There are many ways for companies to avoid these pitfalls and take steps in the right direction. The best solutions for any company will draw on the following examples to craft a genuine and impactful CSR initiative.

1. Enact Employee Initiatives

A robust CSR strategy that prioritizes employee well-being can yield significant benefits for both workers and companies. High employee turnover, costing companies an average of $4,700 per new hire, can be mitigated by fostering loyalty through strong CSR commitments. In response to the rising importance of workers' rights, especially among younger generations, CSR initiatives should adapt to meet labor market expectations.

Foster Employee Well-Being

One strategy to support the workforce involves diversifying hiring practices, such as removing obsolete degree requirements to promote inclusivity. Fair Chance hiring initiatives aim to remove stigma for formerly incarcerated applicants, fostering a fair-chance employment environment.

Recognizing the growing influence of worker power, companies are encouraged to support union organizing and be more labor-savvy. Initiatives that support employees domestically and abroad align with market expectations, especially in areas such as diversifying hiring practices, implementing fair chance hiring policies, and prioritizing job quality. With 94 percent of consumers and 87 percent of investors emphasizing the importance of fair treatment for employees, making strides in job quality within the organization can be perceived as promoting CSR.

Some companies invest in education and trainingto enhance job quality, benefiting both workers and local economies. While many US companies cite challenges in hiring skilled workers, they often underinvest in workforce education and training.


Taking it a step further than simply changing hiring practices, Slack founded the Next Chapter apprenticeship program to provide formerly incarcerated individuals with software engineering skills through mentorship, coding training, and job placement into high-wage employment industries. Partnering companies also joined a network of fair chance employers, which includes, among others, DropBox, PayPal, and Zoom. PayPal also publicly disclosed its partnership with Next Chapter in its most recent ESG report.

Starbucks has taken a pioneering approach to improving job quality through its College Achievement Plan. One notable feature of the program is its no-strings-attached approach, allowing recipients to pursue their educational goals without an obligation to stay with the company afterward. Partners enrolled in the program receive an upfront College Achievement Plan Scholarship covering 42 percent of their tuition costs, funded by Arizona State University. Starbucks also provides access to financial aid grants, and at the end of each semester, the company reimburses any remaining tuition and mandatory fees. Starbucks has committed to graduating at least 25,000 partners by 2025, demonstrating a substantial investment of up to $250 million or more toward this impactful initiative.

Advance Racial Equity Initiatives

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives play a pivotal role in the broader spectrum of CSR goals. Yet, as of 2023, only 6 percent of HR professionals deem their company's DEI efforts effective. Successful execution of DEI strategies ensures that all employees are afforded equal opportunities for professional development and advancement. As state and federal policies set standards for the consideration of race in decision-making, DEI's adoption into CSR practices may prove critical for achieving the equitable outcomes for all workers. Yet companies report their biggest challenge to improving diversity includes finding underrepresented talent and navigating them through hiring processes.

Companies can also source more diverse talent by partnering with historically Black colleges and universities and designing customized interventions to invest in a broader array of students and workers. Efforts such as these promote equity in the workforce, providing value to the company and broader community.


To foster inclusivity, amplify diverse perspectives, and enhance talent pipelines,CitiGroup supports projects such as Living Cities’s Closing the Gaps Network and the HBCU Career Incubator Program. Citi Foundation also supported the Joint Center’s Data for Black America project, which aims to increase understanding of the needs of Black communities.

The New Orleans Business Alliance is at the forefront of redefining economic development with a commitment to fostering an inclusive economy in New Orleans. Established in 2010 through a coalition of business and civic leaders, its mission centers on creating financial security and prosperity for all residents by eliminating economic disparities. The organization employs a racial equity lens, recognizing the intricate connections between culture, equity, and prosperity. The alliance serves as a vital hub, bringing together businesses and community organizations to comprehensively address equity issues related to quality job access and educational opportunities.

2. Integrate CSR into Core Business Strategies

It's crucial to avoid treating CSR opportunities as mere marketing tactics. Running a CSR campaign solely for short-term marketing gains can lead to negative consequences if not followed through or implemented poorly. Instead, socially responsible practices should be carefully considered with genuine intentions and embedded into the long-term business strategy.

Align Company Goals with Stakeholders to Generate Buy-In and Create Partnerships

Aligning CSR strategies with company values involves forming a diverse team and dedicating a CSR manager, proven to be more effective than CEO-led efforts at involving staff from all levels. Gaining executive support is crucial for successful CSR implementation, ensuring alignment with company priorities and effective communication to stakeholders. Ongoing dialogue with employees fosters commitment and competitiveness in talent acquisition.

Engaging employees in CSR activities is a multifaceted approach with several key strategies. First and foremost, leaders should be visible role models, actively participating in volunteer opportunities, donations, and social activities. Transparency from senior management helps drive ­­employee engagement, and they should use these opportunities to ask for employee input on CSR activities of interest to them.

CSR integration across departments involves investing in training, mentorship, and certifications for various roles, especially HR management, to empower employees as stakeholders and ambassadors. Encouraging employee leadership in CSR can boost job satisfaction and productivity, inviting external participation for wider impact.

A rising focus on local initiatives and collaborative models is transforming CSR practices. Corporations now acknowledge a broader responsibility to stakeholders, particularly the communities in which they operate. Private companies are discovering ways to align their core business activities with community needs, giving rise to new business opportunities.

Building community engagement demands a human-centric approach, emphasizing face-to-face interactions alongside digital efforts. Leveraging a proven community engagement model is essential, incorporating elements such as outreach, consultation, involvement, collaboration, and empowerment typically used by civic leaders to foster meaningful connections with the community.

Transparency and timely communication build trust and community support, as individuals feel informed and included in the decision-making process. CSR is a continuous journey, shaping a sustainable corporate culture for mutual benefit. Regularly collecting partner feedback and transparently reporting CSR efforts ensures responsiveness to evolving organizational and stakeholder needs.


Basset Healthcare Network engages in community hiring by partnering with a local community college, offering tuition reimbursement for new workers. Social Capital Partners, through initiatives like Project Liftoff, ensures equal access to digital skills training and job placement services for youth in the digital economy. Another one of their programs, Opportunity for All Youth, works directly with community organizations and employment service providers across Canada to broker relationships with coalition employers and connect young talent directly with available jobs.

HouseATL is a coalition that brings together leaders in real estate, affordable housing advocates, local policymakers, employers, and Atlanta residents to target the city’s affordable housing crisis.

Integrate CSR Goals into Business Strategies

Companies should establish a clear framework for organizing and communicating CSR goals, ensuring they receive the same level of legitimacy as traditional profit-oriented objectives. Most companies treat progress in these areas as less important than improvements in profitability and productivity, but they could instead tie executive compensation to their goals for inclusive and diverse teams. These goals should be embedded into a sustainable business model.

Another method to the mission-driven approach is choosing to become a B Corporation. The rising demand from consumers for socially responsible and transparent business practices has driven the surge in B Corps. These companies adhere to standard metrics for certification and are accountable for their social and environmental impact. The certification process, however, is continuous and demanding, requiring recertification every three years. Organizations are granted access to a B Corp community that provides resources and support throughout the process.


A notable example of a successful transition to a B Corp is Ben and Jerry's, which made the commitment to prioritize community, employees, and social impact alongside shareholder profit. Despite the certification costs, which can reach up to $25,000 annually for large companies, Ben and Jerry's embraced transparency by making their full B Impact Assessment public. This move sets a precedent for other publicly traded companies and their subsidiaries, demonstrating that B Corp certification is a credible stamp of social enterprise approval.

Only half

Only half of consumers would believe a company making a commitment to social responsibility

Source: 2019 Aflac CSR survey

Icon of a chart

85 percent of Americans agree that companies need to disclose more about their business practices and impact on society

Source: 2022 Just Capital survey

3. Establish Genuine Accountability with Transparent Reporting

The demand for transparent environmental, social, and governance (ESG)reporting is on the rise, with 73 percent of investors indicating that efforts to enhance environmental and societal impact influence their investment decisions. But this transparency shouldn't be limited to investors; it should extend to the public as well. Even if the data aren't perfect, sharing it demonstrates a good faith effort.

Accountability measures are integral for a credible CSR initiative given that only half of consumers would believe a company making a commitment to social responsibility. Notably, 85 percent of consumers feel that companies need to disclose more about their business practices and impact on society. To ensure transparency and engagement, companies should regularly communicate their goals not only to investors but also to employees and other stakeholders, making anonymized data accessible to all interested parties.

Incorporating internal reporting on employee well-being into CSR and ESG initiatives is becoming increasingly prevalent among companies. Responding to a growing demand for transparency, more organizations are recognizing the importance of disclosing data related to worker health and safety, retention/turnover rates, average hours of training, and various other statistics. These comprehensive disclosures align with the evolving expectations of stakeholders who prioritize companies' commitment to employee well-being and broader societal impact.


Recognizing the importance of transparency, major corporations such as Target voluntarily disclose EEO-1 data, providing insights into their workforce's racial and gender composition.

Additionally, companies such as CoStar Group and Ally are extending transparency to salary disclosures, emphasizing fair and living wages, along with other impactful initiatives such as increased minimum wages and equity-focused grant programs.


There is an increasing societal demand for private firms to contribute to advancing the welfare of the society in which they operate. The strategies detailed in this article aim to provide guidance and resources for responding to this demand by crafting a robust and authentic CSR strategies that aligns with a company's values and culture while making a positive impact on the community and stakeholders. This approach will not only enhance companies’ reputations but also contribute positively to society and the workforce.

Share your ideas for research, topics, or events to be featured on Working Knowledge by emailing workingknowledge@urban.org