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Last updated July 23, 2021

CSR 101: What is Corporate Social Responsibility?

Join 100s of companies powering their CSR programs to offer volunteering & giving opportunities to their employees, track and report on their efforts.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a business initiative that can result in positive outcomes for employees, employers, and many good causes across the globe. Done well, CSR can drastically improve how your business is perceived, engaged with, and help your company’s broader mission and vision.

In this post, we’ll explore the ins and outs of CSR. We’ll dive into CSR history, share an overview of the different types of CSR, and we’ll explore the benefits of Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives— some of which may surprise you. We’ll wrap up the article with some FAQs.

Our first in our back to basics series, this article is to help guide you towards defining a CSR strategy that fits with your business and equipping your efforts with the tools and knowledge to win support from internal stakeholders.

What is Corporate Social Responsibility?

Over the years, a number of organisations have defined CSR, from the United Nations, the European Union, to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

In a nutshell, CSR covers companies’ practices to be a responsible corporate citizen for their shareholders, employees, customers, communities and society at large. It’s about acting for profit, people, and the planet (the so-called “triple bottom line”). 

In other words, companies consider not just shareholders, but all of their stakeholders in the way they operate – including economic, social and environmental aspects of their business.

Over the years, as the importance of sustainability and sustainable development have grown and these terms are sometimes used interchangeably with corporate social responsibility. The emergence of shared value creation or ESG (environmental, social & governance) also overlap with CSR, but speak to different audiences like academics, governments or investors. 

Movements like the UN Sustainable Development Goals, B Corporations, and the UN Global Compact are driving the CSR agenda forward, moving CSR to the forefront of a company’s strategy.

While there are differences, they all embody the same principles and aim to have a positive impact on society.

Socially responsible organisations can be traced back to the mid-to-late 1800s and came hand-in-hand with philanthropy efforts and worker wellbeing in factories throughout the industrial revolution. 

However, CSR really settled into its own in the early 1950s with the American economist, Howard Bowen. Bowen published Social Responsibilities of the Businessman, and businesses began to take note of how they need to look after staff, and their communities. 

What is Corporate Social Responsibility?

After this, the American Committee for Economic Development formed a ‘social contract’ for emerging businesses in the 1970s— a big step towards popularising the initiative.

Jumping forward a few decades more, business authors and professors began to write more heavily on the topic, dictating the way for businesses to be more conscious of their people and environments.

Today, CSR sits as a must-have strategy for every business and cuts across the entire business, from its supply chain to the employee experience to end consumers. Despite it originating to lead businesses ethically, it now provides many more benefits that depend on various CSR strategies implemented.

Any business can implement a CSR strategy; it’s not something that only corporate giants can handle. The truth is, managed well, even the smallest of companies can create a positive impact.

Why is CSR important?

To some extent, we were all responsible—and still are—for positively affecting the world. Although today, consumers feel the heat more than ever. The newly coined “eco-anxiety” is flooding social media feeds thanks to influencing characters like Greta Thunberg and Lauren Singer

What is Corporate Social Responsibility?
Carbon Footprint Activist: Greta Thunberg

Eco-anxiety has encouraged younger generations to live more aware of their environmental impact and efforts to better the world, and now they’re looking to their employers to help them get there. 

Yet, it doesn’t stop there. CSR is not only crucial for our planet and its people’s environmental sustainability, but it’s essential for our economy as well. An efficient CSR initiative has the power to increase employee engagement. Companies with higher levels of engagement are 22% more productive and can create a 50% higher revenue per employee. 

Employees today want to do more than work for a company; they want to work with a company and for a larger purpose.

Different types of Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives

To some extent, we were all responsible—and still are—for positively affecting the world. Although today, consumers feel the heat more than ever. The newly coined “eco-anxiety” is flooding social media feeds thanks to influencing characters like Greta Thunberg and Lauren Singer.

Employee volunteering programs

Volunteering programs include on and offline activities. Team members can volunteer themselves for manual labour to nonprofit organisations in the local community, or volunteer their skill sets to help less fortunate people thrive.

Corporate giving programs

Also known as corporate philanthropy. Giving programs include charitable donations of cash, services, or goods. They can also include setting up corporate foundations, and often perform best if the charity is close to the business mission or a particular team member.


This type of CSR includes the practice of a business running as environmentally consciously as possible. This can consist of finding a plastic-free goods supply chain, meat-free lunches, recycling, and sustainable development; there are many options.

Employee wellbeing, diversity & inclusion

CSR is about looking after many different communities, and employees are a community themselves, sitting directly under a company’s roof. This CSR area can drastically improve an employee’s experience, which in turn affects a customer’s perspective on the company, talent retention, and even bottom-line ROI. Although employee wellbeing has discovered a recent tie with CSR, it was long overdue. 

74% of Gen Z workers believe work should contribute more to their lives than a paycheck, and they’re looking at CSR when considering their next employer.

Employee wellbeing has several key areas:

1. Physical — Yoga, gym classes, pedal bikes for office commutes, “a healthy body is a healthy mind” mentality.

2. Social & community — Activities like buddy systems, staff retreats, culturally inspired meet-ups, fostering genuine connections among team members. Highlighting exemplary team members, remote work options, book clubs, acts of building community through goodness. This builds a sense of belonging in a workforce, and focuses on including diverse groups of people under one mission.

3. Mental — Mental health awareness, access to psychologists and health care, counselling, meditation.

4. Financial — Study-support, financial planning advice, and home-office stipends also fall under CSR activities.

What is Corporate Social Responsibility?

Benefits of CSR initiatives

Customer & employee loyalty 

Loyalty is hard to build today but can be highly rewarding. CSR initiatives allow people to witness your business’s kindness and consistency; two factors helping build trust and loyalty. 

Bottom line financials

It’s not just staff engagement and retention that adds to a more financially valuable company by using CSR. A study from 191 sample firms listed on the Korea exchange showed a positive correlation between a firm’s financials and business value alongside Corporate Social Responsibility efforts.

Research also shows a standard deviation increase in a customer-facing CSR score leads to “an increase in the economic value of innovation by about 10% of its sample mean.”

Local and global impact

We touched on it earlier, but the global impact your business can make on the world will always be welcomed, little or large. 

Mission & vision alignment 

Strategically considered CSR initiatives can radically help your business align with its mission and vision. It doesn’t always have to come from your product; a good CSR initiative can be the solution to bringing purpose to the workplace, creating a shared initiative in line with the employer’s and employee’s values. 

Partnership, external relations & press opportunities

If you’re in a saturated market and are often struggling to get press traction with your product, consider ways to get positive attention via your operations. CSR is a way to promote who you are and what you do with acts of goodness. 

Unique selling points 

Whether it gives your employer branding a USP or your product a USP, a strong CSR strategy can help your business stand out from the competition. 


How to measure CSR success?

  • Benchmark your results against competition or top performers
  • Set calendar goals and KPIs
  • Measure the qualitative effect of a CSR campaign with an employee feedback loop
  • Use digital tools and platforms to evaluate success for your campaign
  • Analyse other business variables: staff retention, audience size and sentiment,
  • Bottom-line financials and company value, etc.

What are some example KPIs to measure CSR success?

  • Higher employee engagement rates
  • Higher employee retention rates
  • Increased online brand sentiment
  • Lower customer churn rate
  • Increase in brand organic searches
  • Increase in employee satisfaction

Who manages a CSR program?

A CSR program certainly needs a manager to head it up. No matter whether you choose to use a digital platform like Alaya to handle your initiatives or not, the project itself is best managed by someone that has a good overview of all teams and people. 

Some companies have a specific CSR department, whereas others rely on Human Resources teams or location-specific Office Managers. It can also be a responsibility of marketing or communications departments, depending on what the business hopes to achieve with its CSR initiatives. 

What does a successful CSR program look like?

A tricky question. Every CSR program will have different key performance indicators. What’s important is that you establish what they are from the start. 

Perhaps you’re looking to retain talent, keep employees engaged, receive more positive brand sentiment, or want an increase in brand name searches; the list is long. Establish what goals you’re after and make sure you hit them. 

How can CSR impact company bottom-line financials?

A CSR tool removes a lot of the manual lifting your team would have to do, including vetting nonprofit partners and managing events to help those partners. Program managers spend, on average, 30 hours to organise one event. It’s a huge amount of time and soon adds up if you want more events throughout the year. 

A CSR tool removes a lot of this manual labour, so your business can save up to 20% in team resources and program costs. 

How can CSR impact company bottom-line financials?

Increased bottom-line is mainly because of lower financing costs due to better innovation, competitive differentiation leading to more customers, greater employee engagement and productivity, and reduced recruitment costs due to staff retention and employee referrals. 

Wrapping it all up

Old-school Corporate Social Responsibility can be time-consuming, but it can be so much more efficient if you’re willing to adopt the right technology to help your team work. Plus, it’s something that all employees are looking for in their employers and something that business owners need to seriously consider if they hope to win genuine loyalty and respect from future talent. 

CSR has proven to increase employee engagement, performance, and even bottom-line revenue per team member. Numbers aside, it’s also proving to better our world. If you have the time and talent to incorporate CSR in your business growth, then there’s no time like the present to dive right in and help start making the world a better place, one act at a time.