The Impact Conundrum: How To Demonstrate CSR Progress

Demonstrating progress against CSR missions is paramount, but many companies struggle to find or collect these metrics. We recently asked 18 corporate philanthropic leaders, all representing Fortune 200 companies, where they are on their CSR measurement journeys. The wide-ranging responses reflect a CSR reality in which companies are still figuring out how to prove their purpose.

From the candid “[Measurement] is my Achilles’ heel,” to the aspirational “It’s the Holy Grail;” and from the determined, “[CSR measurement] is my top priority for 2013,” to a simple resignation of “Ugh,” CSR measurement is, in many cases, unchartered territory. Companies are unsure where to begin, what to measure, and how to track and report progress. But there is a universal desire to figure out the impact conundrum.

Not surprisingly, many of the companies we interviewed do consistently collect outputs – hours volunteered, dollars raised, lives and communities supported – but have yet to determine how to synthesize outcomes and impacts of their efforts. This includes social impact measures as well as business impacts including reputation, differentiation, perception and long-term growth. For most, demonstrating the clear link between CSR initiatives and those critical impacts is still far away, like a dot on the horizon.

What’s preventing companies from getting there? The familiar nemeses of time, resources and expertise. Recognizing they can no longer wait, companies are getting creative, sparking ideas and creating motion through a range of initial starting points:

  • Collaborating with private foundations to gain insights and expertise on measurement techniques tied to social outcomes
  • Providing additional support to selected nonprofit partners to enhance their evaluation and measurement expertise and reporting systems
  • Working together with colleagues in marketing or consumer insights to replicate models in order to gain metrics on consumer awareness, receptivity, perception and behavior change as a result of CSR initiative
  • Convening a one-day working session with key grantees to identify key impact metrics
  • Leveraging existing stakeholder surveys to overlay CSR related questions and establish baselines around awareness and perception, among others
  • Creating a CSR performance dashboard to gain internal consensus on what to measure such as revenue, efficiency, talent, brand and social impacts

While none of these ideas is the solution, they represent steps in the direction of a more sophisticated approach towards measuring outcomes rather than outputs; proving impact versus making noise. And this approach will be increasingly necessary to build and protect credibility with stakeholders, defend and increase resources internally, and ultimately, assess where you are on the CSR journey.


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