By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

We’ve discussed here how CSR is a great way to build employee engagement, as well as your company’s brand – on top of doing something good for society in general. But, as Tracey Keys, Thomas W. Malnight, and Kees van der Graaf explained in a recent McKinsey Quarterly article, it’s not as simple as creating a project – and then poof – employees are engaged and brands are boosted while society benefits.

What happens when employees see CSR initiatives as little more than a boardroom pet project?

Or, what happens when CSR efforts are seen as mere propaganda or marketing, and end up actually harming your brand?

It actually takes some serious effort and planning to make sure each piece falls into place. How do you tie everything into a meaningful CSR program? Keys, Malnight, and van der Graaf believe the answer is “smart partnering.” They explain, “Smart partnering focuses on key areas of impact between business and society and develops creative solutions that draw on the complementary capabilities of both to address major challenges that affect each partner.”

For example, they describe Hindustan Unilever Limited’s Project Shakti – an initiative in India to teach rural women entrepreneurship skills. The women borrowed money locally, purchased Unilever products from a distribution center, and sold them within their villages. Keys, Malnight, and van der Graff write, “By 2008, Shakti provided employment for 42,000 women entrepreneurs covering nearly 130,000 villages and 3 million households every month. In the same year, HUL sales through the project approached $100 million.”

Smart partnering comes down to symmetry – each party in the equation receives an equal share of the value produced by it.

Smart Partnering in Three Kind of Simple Steps

The authors provide three principles for “cocreating” value:

  1. Concentrate Your CSR Efforts: “…the greatest opportunities will come from areas where the business significantly interacts with—and thus can have the greatest impact on—society.”
  2. Build a Deep Understanding of the Benefits: “The key is …being open enough to understand issues both from a business and a societal perspective.”
  3. Find the Right Partners: “Partnering is difficult, but when both sides see win–win potential there is greater motivation to realize the substantial benefits.”

But while these steps can ensure that your business and your partners receive mutual benefit from partnering, they do little to ensure staff buy-in or employee engagement. As the article says:

“This is the tough bit of the process: taking action, rather than speaking about it, and keeping up the momentum even when targets are far in the future. As you plan the implementation of your chosen initiatives and follow through, ask: Can we build the commitment we need across the organization to make this happen—and are we as leaders willing to lead by example?”

Tips for Creating Employee Buy-In

The authors of the McKinsey article suggest that a strong example set by company leadership is the key to building employee buy-in for your CSR initiative. Yet, this may still lead staff members to view it as their boss’ pet-project.

Engagement with company leadership is important, but tapping into informal leadership within the grassroots of your organization is also key – you’ll need evangelists for the initiative outside the boardroom as well. Locating them can be difficult – perhaps HR personnel or managers can help identify who may be good to get involved in the planning process. This is where communication is vital – make sure employees know that you’re looking for leaders (and not just management) to take charge of the process.

And finally, you have to follow through. Make sure the project gets out of the planning stages and actually hits the ground. Keep track of benchmarks and communicate success and challenges to employees. Make sure they’re involved in the project from beginning to end.