As companies embed corporate social responsibility into their businesses, the value of working with CSR consultants isn’t always clear.
In many cases, companies don’t need to hire outside consultants. For example, if you understand your company’s social purpose, your communications team should be able to get the message out. Or if you’ve made CSR a human resource priority, you shouldn’t need outside help to increase employee engagement or establish a volunteer program. If you have the right NGO partners, it’s best for your own people to improve relationships with these organizations.
But there are some exceptions. These include areas such as social audits of supply chains, environmental impact assessments, and measurement of social outcomes where third party verification/assurance is appropriate and necessary. Overall,the objective should be to build internal CSR capacity wherever possible.
As the demand for CSR consultants is diminishing, the supply is increasing. For example, a Google search for CSR consultants revealed more than 5,000 results in New York City, 4,100 in London, 1,600 in Mumbai, 1,000 in Johannesburg and 327 in Beijing. There’s now so much choice that corporations that are new to CSR or need to improve their programs have a hard time selecting the right CSR advisor.
I thought it would be helpful to create a checklist for corporations to use when they need to find a CSR consultant. Here are six criteria that I think are particularly important:
1. Breadth of Experience: Have they worked in different business categories? Have they worked for corporations and not-for-profit organizations? Have they worked for small and large businesses? There is valuable cross-learning that comes from applying CSR in a wide range of situations.
2. Depth of Experience: There are many people who are passionate about CSR and have started consulting in this area. When selecting a CSR consultant, you need to balance enthusiasm with experience.
3. Diversity: Work with CSR consultants who reflect the internal and external audiences you need to reach and influence. This means the consultant should have access to a wide range of different opinions and to people of different ages, genders and ethnicities.
4. Building Capacity: The best CSR consultants place a high priority on putting themselves out of work. As described above, most aspects of CSR should be handled internally. Avoid consultants who are excessive self-promoters.
5. Experience with Social Change: It’s not enough to have academic credentials and practical experience in business. CSR is about bridging the gap between profit and purpose. This means that your advisors need to understand how social change works.
6. Inspiration: You should find a CSR consultant who inspires you to be provocative in a positive and appropriate way. Some of the best CSR advisors I know are also artists or musicians. (Another common trait seems to be a passion for bicycling!)
This list isn’t intended to cover specific aspects of CSR advisory services such as environmental sustainability or legal advice on climate change and emissions, areas where decisions are made almost solely based on professional and technical expertise.
I’m often asked about who I think is doing remarkable work in this area. There are thousands of individuals and organizations who are working in CSR and it’s impossible to keep up with who’s doing what. However, here are three US-based organizations that are doing great work:
BSR: BSR has a global network that works with businesses to create a just and sustainable world. The organization offers consulting services in seven areas: strategy and integration, human rights, sustainable local benefits, stakeholder engagement, supply chain sustainability, reporting and communications, and climate change.
FSG: Mark Kramer and his colleagues at FSG “believe that solving the world’s most challenging societal problems requires new ways of thinking, acting, and partnering,” according to the company’s website. Kramer and FSG co-founder, Professor Michael Porter, are also the architects of shared value, “an approach to meeting business objectives that creates a competitive advantage for corporations through innovations that address society’s needs and challenges.”
Mission Measurement: Jason Saul and his team help their clients by measuring social impact and creating value through social innovation. They help corporations, public sector agencies, nonprofits and foundations create value through social change and empower them with data to solve social problems more efficiently.
Regardless of who you choose to work with, remember that CSR consultants are just a stopgap. The most meaningful effort happens inside your organization with your own people.