Nonprofit Growth

What Is Corporate Social Responsibility and How Can Nonprofits Use It?

Corporate Social Responsibility for Nonprofits

Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR, for short, is a term thrown around a lot in the business world, specifically regarding ethicality and fair business practices.

Corporate social responsibility is used to hold companies, corporations, businesses, and organizations accountable for their actions and the effects their actions may have on their community, the environment, and those around them.

CSR not only allows businesses to self-regulate themselves and have social accountability, but it can also immensely benefit an organization’s public image, reputation, or monetary earnings. CSR is essential to both consumers and companies, as it can provide a mutually beneficial relationship between the two. Not only can proper corporate social responsibility increase a brand’s recognition and reputation (which leads to improved sales and better customer loyalty), but it can also help with organizational growth, companywide performance, and even cost savings.

Two of the most common reasons for a company to use corporate social responsibility are ethical reasons and strategic reasons. From a moral standpoint, CSR makes sense because of the inherent transparency involved in the business model and the possible ethical goals that may exist behind a company. For example, if a brand or corporation is involved with environmental protection, it may make more sense on an ethical level to take practices within the company to be more environmentally-friendly and sustainable, regardless of whether or not these practices would benefit the organization financially or socially. From a strategic point of view, corporate social responsibility may be used to harbor the benefits or potential benefits associated with CSR. Corporate social responsibility can be a part of a long-term strategic plan or business model, as once it is implemented, its impact and outcomes can be very impactful.

Nonprofit Organizations and Corporate Social Responsibility

Because of this, CSR is not only a responsibility among companies and corporations but can be used as a business advantage. When it comes to nonprofit organizations, corporate social responsibility can have specific benefits that look different from the benefits of for-profit organizations. For example, in addition to better identification and perception of an organization from the public, in nonprofit organizations, CSR can also lead to an increase in the number of volunteers an organization may receive or more political power to influence issues and agendas that benefit the goals of the organization.

Aside from the benefits it brings, corporate social responsibility, in general, looks a lot different when applied to a nonprofit context. Some nonprofit organizations avoid the term ‘CSR’ because it sounds like “corporate terminology,” even when they are technically practicing corporate social responsibility. It’s suggested that roughly two-thirds of all nonprofits engage in some behaviors that can be indicative of corporate social responsibility, from being more environmentally-friendly in their offices to keeping full transparency when needed.

Although the actual term ‘CSR’ is not used by all nonprofit organizations, the ethical implications of misusing or completely not using CSR can be substantial. Ethical issues that are prevalent among nonprofits, such as monetary issues, financial integrity, conflicts of interest, management, and accountability, can be better addressed and worked through when corporate social responsibility is involved. Some people even say that corporate social responsibility in the nonprofit sector is more focused on taking accountability and maintaining transparency than it is building partnerships or initiatives. Enforcing high moral and ethical standards in all corners of an organization can help keep things in check and may be considered a form of CSR.

From a consumer standpoint, corporate social responsibility, whether it is called this or not, is becoming more and more crucial. Customers, donors, and business partners have all started to care more about the ethical footprint of the organizations they engage with. Along with consumers becoming more aware of industry malpractices, including concepts such as “greenwashing,” people, in general, are becoming more attuned to the practices an organization takes and what their core values and actions are. The role an organization or business plays in its community and surrounding environment is now more crucial than ever and can have a lasting impact.

How Can Nonprofits Use Corporate Social Responsibility

In order to increase the corporate social responsibility of a brand, it is first important to implement a strategic plan for setting goals, putting a plan of action into place, assessing outcomes, and reevaluating parts of the plan that need to be adjusted. The following list breaks down these steps and shows how nonprofit organizations can increase their corporate social responsibility and related social initiatives.

  1. Articulate clear and specific goals. When aiming to improve corporate social responsibility, the first step should be to create SMART goals that can help you achieve what you want. SMART is an acronym that stands for goals that are Smart, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based. Make goals with all of these qualities to give your organization a higher chance of achieving them. Examples of SMART goals related to corporate social responsibility might be to form a targeted number of CSR-related partnerships, raise a specific amount of funding or donations through CSR-initiatives, or to complete a specific number of CSR-related initiatives within a set period of time.
  2. Research. Once goals are set and objectives are created, the next step is to do research. Not only will it be important to find potential corporate social responsibility partners and donors, but building a campaign plan and proposal will also be of importance. Creating a campaign plan will involve things like reaching out to any potential partners, securing partnerships, and writing out a plan to specify the details of the campaign. Campaign plan details should be thorough and include all of the necessary steps needed to implement the campaign. This includes information such as deadlines, timelines, resources, strategies, etc.
  3. Use any strengths or advantages possible. Finally, when it comes time to finalize your campaign plan, make sure to use any existing organizational or company-wide strengths to help the campaign succeed. For example, it may be helpful to utilize cross-promotional strategies or rely on engagement methods that have worked in the past. If your nonprofit happens to have a loyal following on a social media platform, use that platform to promote the campaign, and consider sharing your social media metrics and data with potential partners. No matter what area your nonprofit excels in, find ways to connect them into your corporate social responsibility and related initiatives.

Real-World Examples of CSR

Leaders in the world of corporate social responsibility include brands like Starbucks, Adidas, and Ben and Jerry’s. Starbucks remains one of the top companies in CSR because of their many initiatives and reputation for being a good employer. The Starbucks Foundation itself has helped many local communities, organizations, and people in a variety of ways. They also partner with organizations like the Ethos Water Fund, which works to provide clean water around the world to those in need. Adidas is also known for their partnerships, working with Parley to create high-performance sportswear out of plastic waste, and joining forces with Greenpeace to bring light to many of the dangerous chemicals involved in global supply chains. Ben and Jerry’s has a reputation for creating impactful social campaigns and dedicating certain ice cream flavors to different causes and charities. They have also donated many of their pre-tax profits with the Ben and Jerry’s Foundation and Community Action Teams.

While CSR initiatives are often a great way for both profit and non-profit organizations to cause a positive impact, they can also go very wrong. When used irresponsibly or incorrectly, corporate social responsibility has the potential to cause major catastrophe.

For example, when BP Oil released a more than $200 million dollar campaign to establish themselves as an environmentally responsible and sustainable company, they were already faced with some criticism. The criticism only became worse as BP underwent an 87-day oil spill that caused irreparable damage to the environment. Although the CEO at the time, Tony Hayward, apologized on behalf of BP, his apology was met with even more criticism. BP Oil’s campaign was not taken seriously and their CSR initiative had only led the public to have more distrust and negative opinions.


When looking at corporate social responsibility, it is important to examine the reasons behind wanting to use it for your organization. While authenticity, good behaviors, and ethicality can have many positive impacts on a business or organization, they can also hurt an organization if people think that they are only being used as marketing tools to deceive the public. The way CSR operates is more ingrained among nonprofit organizations, and can therefore be implemented or increased in different ways than it would for other businesses or organizations.

The most important piece of advice is to always prepare, do research, and articulate well-thought-out plans and goals to achieve the things that are most important to your organization.

By Amanda Conover