Your New CSR Playbook for COVID-19

As someone who loves to have a plan, it’s difficult for me to write this next sentence, but here it goes. It’s time to throw away your corporate social responsibility (CSR) plans.   

The coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for our communities and families. Now more than ever, these challenges will require a thoughtful and strategic response from the corporate community. While most companies have CSR plans that have appropriately served them – and their communities – in the past, the one-two punch of this global public health and economic disaster requires much more from of all us. 

If you’re faced with evaluating the impact of your organization’s CSR initiatives in the wake of COVID-19, here are six ways to reconsider your company’s community engagement plans in 2020: 

6 Ways to Approach Corporate Social Responsibility During COVID-19

1. Redefine Your Community
In the past, caring for your employees was generally the domain of human resources, not community engagement. The mind-boggling scale and impact of COVID-19 means many more people, including those working directly with your organization, are suffering and need additional support. Before considering any external community engagement, your CSR team should ensure the people closest to your business are receiving the care they need. 

We’ve seen this in the hard-hit restaurant and hospitality industries, with innovative initiatives like Dining Bonds, the #TheGreatAmericanTakeout and the Get Shift Done for North Texas Initiative. The Jackson Spalding team has been honored to donate our time to help increase awareness of how people can give to and volunteer with a new effort by The Thanks-Giving Foundation in Dallas. Serving Up Gratitude purchases grab-n-go packaged meals from local restaurants and distributes them among frontline healthcare workers and first responders. 

Once you take care of your employees and industry, they can stand with you as you collectively turn your attention to the needs of the broader community.  

2. Step UYour Engagement
I want to be clear. I am not suggesting you deviate entirely from your giving pillars or abandon your current nonprofit partners. In fact, they likely need you now more than ever. The problems our communities were facing before COVID-19 haven’t gone away. They only have a new layer of complexity.  

Nonprofits are going above and beyond and need their corporate partners to help them find solutions to unprecedented issues. With the support of businesses, our client Boys & Girls Clubs of America continues to find new ways to serve communities, like providing emergency care for healthcare workers, facilitating provision of meals and offering online learning opportunities.  

With your current giving pillars in mind, it’s time for CSR professionals to brainstorm what their companies can also do to respond to COVID-19.  Several brands, including JS client L.L. Bean, have shifted their production to manufacture face masks for healthcare workers, while beer and spirits companies  around the world are pivoting some of their supply chains to produce hand sanitizer to donate to hospitals. Consider what those on the front lines need and identify assets or services you could potentially provide in place of or above and beyond your standard operations.   

3. Revise Your Communications Goals
From educating your audiences about a cause to strengthening the reputation of your company and nonprofit partners, the goals of your previous CSR communications plan certainly had their place prior to the coronavirus pandemic. While some may still be relevant, it’s likely time to rewrite certain goals to focus on this crisis and the business community’s response to it. Ultimately, it all comes down to how communication about your company’s response to COVID-19 can help flatten the curve and ease suffering. When re-evaluating your communications goals, consider how your company could: 

  • Change behaviors that threaten to spread the virus 
  • Increase awareness of community needs to fight the virus and its economic impact to individuals  
  • Share creative ideas that will inspire other companies and individuals to take action 
  • Provide hope or happiness to our anxious society 

In a time of crisis, any self-serving goals could inadvertently come across as capitalizing on the pandemic. To ensure your message is well-received, bring in an outside perspective to provide feedback on how to avoid claims of woke-washing 

4. Collaborate with Peers (and Competitors)
In normal times, we advise clients to distinguish their brand by leading in social causes where their competitors and peers are not heavily involved in order to make a more meaningful impact and uncover unique stories to share. But these are not normal times and COVID-19 is no normal “cause.” It’s clear that we – as a country and as a planet – will have to work together to solve this 

As you’re revising your CSR strategy, survey what other companies, nonprofits and government entities are already doing and consider where you could plug in. The Disaster Action Alliance, which Jackson Spalding helped Coca-Cola North America and other Atlanta-based corporations and nonprofits launch in 2018, is an amazing example of collaboration in times of need. In cities and towns across the country, the corporate community is rallying behind community foundations to establish COVID-19 response and recovery funds. Business leaders are banding together to #StopTheSpread and #leadboldly to fund our country’s most urgent healthcare needs.  

So, don’t shy away from collaborating with your peers. You may even take a page from the playbook of longtime sports rivals and seek ways to work with your competitors as well. 

5. Take a New Approach to Employee Volunteerism 
For companies with robust employee volunteerism programs, many meaningful projects came to an unexpected halt in Q1. But that important work for your business and the community shouldn’t remain stalled.   

Yes, it’s important to pause and make sure your employees are receiving the care they need, but also be sure to consider ways to activate volunteers again in meaningful ways. While staying inside our homes is in and of itself an act for social good, it leaves many feeling lonely and unproductive. Whether redeploying employees for skills-based volunteering, creating materials and resources to support COVID-19 response efforts, like our clients at Google, or finding ways to take previously planned volunteer efforts online, providing opportunities for your employees to be active in the community will strengthen company morale and employee engagement during this challenging time.    

6. Think Creatively
If there’s ever been a time for out-of-the-box thinking, it’s now. With a crisis this complex, far-reaching and unprecedented, there are few tried-and-true approaches to support the endless community needs that have been created or exacerbated by COVID-19. Let’s challenge ourselves to think critically and creatively about how our companies may be uniquely positioned to help and test innovative solutions. It may be a fresh take on a past CSR initiative or creating something entirely new.  

Every company can find a meaningful way to help. Even the industries that have been hardest hit economically can still contribute to the enormous need. Consider in-kind gifts like our clients at Delta who are giving free flights to medical volunteers on the front lines or Mailchimp who is giving free services to small business owners.    

These revisions to your CSR plans are steps to keep in mind for both short-term relief and long-term recovery. There’s a lengthy road ahead, and never has there been a time when we need more businesses to step up and lead.