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The State Of Corporate Responsibility: Ambivalent, Leaderless, And A Little Apathetic

Are you working to make a company better from the inside? Is it working? A survey of CSR professionals found that the industry’s lack of direction is starting to wear on the people who should be most excited.

If you’re interested in meaningful work—specifically, in a job as a corporate social responsibility (CSR) expert—be ready for a challenge. The CSR field is barely 30 years old, and what, exactly, a corporate responsibility professional does is still up for debate.

In the past decade, organizations like the Presidio Graduate School have sprung up to teach sustainable management, but the problem remains: Corporate responsibility jobs are a little aimless, at least according to a new report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The report, which aims to create a "snapshot" of the profession today and how it can be matured in the future, isn’t exactly large in scope. The authors surveyed less than 100 CSR professionals (people like the senior director of global community affairs at Microsoft and the VP of corporate social responsibility at McDonald’s), but nevertheless, the paper offers some insight into where CSR is today. Some of the most important insights:

  • There is no deliberate career path for CSR. In other words, most people don’t have any formal training—they come from related disciplines like corporate philanthropy or environmental health. This is starting to change with programs like the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps Fellowship and the aforementioned Presidio Graduate School, but the fact remains: There is no CSR career ladder.
  • The people interviewed for the study identified a number of attributes that make for a successful CSR professional. These people are decisive, courageous, versatile, innovative, proactive, and perceptive. These traits would of course be useful in most jobs, not just CSR-related ones.
  • There is no educational pipeline for CSR professionals, and hence no clear leadership in the field. The number of CSR-related dissertations has actually declined since 2001, as you can see in the graph above.
  • CSR professionals aren’t quite sure how to feel about their jobs. They enjoy what they do, but they also don’t know where the profession is going in the future. In one survey, respondents were split almost 50/50 on whether there should be some sort of CSR credential. Translation: a lot of people don’t think the profession is mature enough for certification.
  • According to the report, some CSR professionals "are disturbingly apathetic." That’s a generalization that doesn’t apply across the board, but the U.S. Chamber claims that many professionals "seem unwilling to actively help build the [CSR] profession. They remain unconvinced that a profession even exists or that it’s worth investing time or effort in developing."
What can be done to remedy these problems? The report suggests that CSR professionals might try banding together around a professional organization like the Corporate Responsibility Officers Association (one of the groups behind the report, unsurprisingly). At some point, a certification program might make sense. In the meantime, professionals need to work on creating a larger body of academic knowledge. The report also suggests: "[Employers] need to make it clear to jobseekers, future business leaders, and academic institutions that CR knowledge and skills are valuable and part of what they want to see in future employees. Conversely, jobseekers need to communicate that a 'responsible DNA’ is part of what they seek in future employers." In our unscientific opinion, this is already starting to happen on a large scale—employers know that jobseekers increasingly care about CSR. And according to the Financial Post, at least, CSR is becoming a trend in the MBA world. It’s a start.

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  • Bunmi A.

    As a non-profit professional, I think the CSR industry will also need to tackle how exactly companies of all sizes and interests, can implement a strong(er) CSR program. I feel that majority of companies still see "CSR" as philanthropy and philanthropy as "charity" and charity as something that simply feels good. Therefore, ANYONE can be a CSR professional. The understanding of CSR, on a broader scale, is still very basic. Until we get more companies educated and comfortable with CSR, Shared Value and the like, we'll always have this challenge with standardizing the CSR profession. 

  • Good_Generation

    Thanks for such an interesting summary of that report!

    Perhaps one fundamental challenge to CSR as a profession or "department" is the lack of standardization of responsibilities and affiliations. At present, my interpretation of CSR is as vague as "something related to sustainability, philanthropy, corporate communications, and ethics".

    It does not help that language of "corporate social innovation", "non-market strategy" and various claims to "CSR 2.0, 3.0 or 4.0" add to the confusion and lack of an ability to draw boundaries around this "field".

    The idea of certification is interesting but we would have to ask ourselves what that certification would enable someone to do other than knowledge about compliance related issues.

    With that in mind: how many people are genuinely excited about essentially extending the work scope of corporate lawyers/accountants with a little dash of business strategy - and getting certified for a blend of all the above?

    From a career perspective, the certificate would then have to also fight an enormous uphill battle in terms of convincing prospective employers how a person with such certificate would add value without potentially having actual operational experience in a particular business group. To that point, it seems that CSR might get most effectively applied by someone with broad experience across a variety of internal departments of a particular business, combined with latest industry-specific external knowledge of trends, laws and regulations that must be heeded.

    Lastly, let us perhaps take a moment to reflect on why it is that we are considering a separate role/department for "responsibility" of a company, compared to internalizing this from top management down. If the latter were preferred, this role could be considered a temporary consultant position that builds consensus and drives a firm's various stakeholders towards greater governance, transparency, and all other traditional CSR metrics of a specific industry. Eventually, however, everything "responsibility" related must be owned by every single manager of every group within a company - and cannot be insourced to a particular function.

    In the final summary, all these factors would support our suspicion that certification may be a thing of the distant future - or, if it happens quicker, a compromise on the scope and definition of a concept few of us can find consensus on.


  • Tom

    I like your response to the article. I like to think of a corporation as a single person, with multiple personalities which compete for attention of the outside world, by "taking over" the direction of the person. Frightening, in an unstable person - but downright energizing in a person who is "aware" of his / her many sides.

    I actually know very, very little about "Corporate Social Responsibility." I was a police officer and detective for 33 years. The very nature of our work demanded that it be conducted in a "socially responsible" way. Yet, there were those among us, who were good at what they did, solving crimes, building credible evidence, arresting accused persons, bringing the evidence to court, etc., who, when they were promoted, seemed to forget that the purpose of their work was to assure that those steps were taken. Instead, they re-focused their efforts on "getting their next promotion" and therefore began to assemble "data" to "illustrate what a great job they were doing as supervisors."

    The man who remained true to his calling, the one who would show up whenever a real crisis unfolded to help in any way he could, the one who encouraged the officers who were beginning to burn out from overwork, etc. - THAT ONE would emerge as the chosen leader by the officers, whether they had any rank over them, or not.

    A "Socially Responsible Corporation" recognizes that people are motivated by how they feel about what they are doing. So...... I surmise that a company which recognizes that they need to be environmentally sensitive, while they are mining, should eventually find to their pleasant surprise that they have some very talented, very hard working, dedicated employees - and that their efforts result in savings due to the conscientious nature of their workers. And eventually, increased earnings from their investments in these people. 

  • johnindc

    Sad to say, the profession of CSR includes 'green' advocates, ethicists, efficiency experts and a host of others. It is time that a true profession takes hold; one that sees the business benefits, challenges and opportunities of managing a corporations 'non-tangible' assets including customer, community, regulatory goodwill that must be earned.