Do Companies REALLY need CSR Consultants?

Corporate Social Responsibility is a relatively new business discipline and its inclusion in the mainstream management consulting is even newer. As companies  embed corporate social responsibility into their businesses, the value of working with CSR consultants isn’t always clear.

The first time I worked with a Saudi business contemplating CSR, what struck me most was how receptive the management was to new ideas. Yes I could hear trepidation and fear of unknown territories but above it all was that the leadership had no preconceived notions of what true CSR looks like or what they need to do in order to be a responsible corporate citizen. This could be a mixed blessing with the consultant having a very hard time convincing the management about the business value of just about every program they recommend but since the client is a clean slate, it is also a great opportunity to establish trust and credibility with the client by proposing solutions that could be innovative and beneficial for the society as well as for the business.

Then, there are the companies who are operating in a region as local partners of an international parent, a company who is likely saving the world by adopting baby kangaroos. The local partner then assumes that its role in the CSR continuum is to further the cause and it doesn’t really matter that there are no kangaroos in Saudi Arabia. The problem is further compounded when they are given a laundry list of CSR must-dos. They are then either too intimidated to do anything at all or start by going item by item on the list and not getting anywhere.

The presence of a local consultant who is familiar with the socio-economic context of the country is priceless in this situation. Not only will the consultant be able to contextualize the international CSR program to fit the local needs but can also help develop programs that address issues specific to that particular region.

Another situation where the use of a consultant is crucial is where the in-house team does not have possess enough knowledge and experience in a particular social framework. These include areas such as social audits and measurement of program outcomes. A consultant with a solid background in assessments frameworks can prepare the internal CSR team for a 3rd party verification and also help set key performance indicators and metrics that benchmark the company practices against international best practices.

Consultants generally have a bad name for prescribing solutions that do not have a clearly measurable outcome. However, there are some CSR consultants who have made it into an art form. Coming up with plans and strategies that cost an arm and a leg and promising measurable returns in about 13.45 years. Why? The usual answer is that societal benefit and reputation enhancement are not measurable. The truth is, not only are these measurable but in most cases are also quantifiable. Yes, these measures should not guide the depth of your CSR activities but they very well serve as the impetus in improving and working towards creating better linkages. The often used adage is also relevant for CSR “what you cannot measure, you cannot control”.

Hence the most effective way to establish credibility with a client is to reference past work where you were able to quantify social impact as well as the Return on investment for the business.

One tool that I have developed for this purpose is Social Return on Investment(SROI) Dashboard, a tool meant to measure the apparent and demonstrative effectiveness of a CSR program for society as well as for realizing business objectives. Presenting a sample of the SROI dashboard in a client meeting puts their mind at ease regarding the measurement of CSR outcomes and establishes the consultant as someone who cares as much about the impact of your CSR programs as the business does.

In conclusion, a company may not always want to hire outside consultants. For example, If a company has a robust relationship with an NGO for a social cause, their communications team should be able to get the message out. Or if they decide to embed CSR in their operations, they should be able to manage employee engagement or establish a volunteer program on their own.

The value of a good CSR consultant then is not in the actual field work but in determining the CSR strategic direction which helps deliver business as well as societal benefits, in developing the roadmap for effective CSR programs, in setting parameters that determine success and above all in passing out that knowledge to the internal CSR team for long term sustainability of the CSR function.

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