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Insights for CSR Leaders

To help CSR leaders with their unique challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have gathered insights from our experts and members. These insights are geared toward those who are providing emergency relief and support to communities and constituencies where the company has the reach and resources to do so. We hope these ideas are helpful as you formulate, implement, and manage your crisis response.

More than three months into the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, the CSR function’s role is increasingly crucial: providing emergency relief for affected areas and populations and supporting communities and constituencies where the company has the reach and resources to do so. To help CSR leaders during this trying time, we have assembled insights on CSR practices from ongoing conversations with our internal experts and member network.  We hope these ideas help as you formulate, implement, and manage your crisis response.

Successful CSR in this crisis starts with three executive actions:

  1. Live the brand. Where possible, focus CSR initiatives on providing products, services, and competencies that align with your company’s strengths and values. This will ensure maximum impact.
  2. Focus. Define clear objectives and beneficiaries for CSR efforts. Develop and continually refine internal and external communications to explain your rationale. Use appropriate corporate communications channels to report progress and continually remind and detail CSR progress to key stakeholders and especially to your employees.
  3. Collaborate across functions. CSR activities touch most functions. CSR should work alongside critical counterparts—human resources, environmental, health and safety, operations, marketing, finance, and communications— to ensure consistency.

Key “Must Dos” and “Get Rights”

  • Elevate CSR as a strategic component of crisis response. Activate a CSR crisis team to fast track and elevate planning and execution of CSR measures.
  • Apply analytical rigor to CSR program definition and execution. The most critical steps are:
    • Assessments of key stakeholders’ situations. Map where your employees, operations, suppliers, and customers are in relationship to affected locations, current and projected. Consider the range of pandemic scenarios: i.e., the possibility that COVID-19 becomes a persistent or seasonal part of life and business.
    • Identify needs. Work with employees on the ground, local governments, and nonprofits and community organizations to identify the greatest needs. Map locations to available resources or those ready to mobilize. Identify logistics issues with delivery and activation against timing considerations for those in need.
    • Focus on your core competencies. To maximize impact, activities should be in line with your company’s core values, competencies, and resources. Poorly executed initiatives can be wasteful or even counterproductive. It is crucially important to determine if/how your assets—employees, expertise, cash, products/services—can make a positive contribution given evolving needs.
    • Map out company priorities. With key stakeholders, needs, and available resources in mind, map your priorities. Consider three factors: timing (some actions address an immediate need, others are important at a later stage); impact (direct and indirect); and relationships (need support of other stakeholders for impact). Provide as much relief as possible without jeopardizing the wellbeing of your employees. Relief activities involving employees should be voluntary and comply with relevant labor laws.
    • Measure and reassess regularly. At defined and frequent intervals, review measures taken for effectiveness and relevance. As time passes, the needs of communities and key stakeholders will change, sometimes significantly. Adjust measures accordingly.
  • Mobilize executive support for the CSR strategy. Or agitate as necessary to get it. Crises of this magnitude need to be led from the top, or at least have a mandate from the top. Timely decision making, authority to act, and quick access to resources all require a direct line to senior leadership and its willingness to do the right thing based on conscience and public purpose.
  • Avoid reactive relief responses that underuse or waste company resources. When offering immediate assistance, think big picture. Most companies tend to focus on only the “hot” phase of crisis relief. But by all indicators, huge societal support will be required to remedy COVID-19 impacts and improve pandemic/crisis readiness long after remission. Consider the likely stages of the COVID-19 case: outbreak (acute phase), containment stage as outbreak wanes, recovery and rebuilding, community resilience, and public education. Determine critical needs at different stages so that you can act with the least cost and most impact.
  • For charitable donations, mitigate risks. Make sure you’ve fully vetted any recipient organization prior to giving; or better yet, work with those organizations with whom your company has a smooth track record. This is not the time for experimentation.
    • Cash donations Intermediary organizations can be a good way to get funding quickly to areas through organizations with which you might not regularly work.  Community foundations are working with local organizations in need. Globally, look to groups such as the UN Foundation, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and Save the Children.
    • In-kind donations Equipment and supplies to help overcome production shortages or distribution bottlenecks are a good alternative to cash. Focus on goods and services you produce or that can be obtained from your suppliers and business partners. When appropriate, find creative ways to source and fulfill requests for non-company products by leveraging corporate relationships. Make sure that in-kind donations are truly needed and do not clog supply lines.
  • Clearly communicate the company’s CSR message and activity. The crisis presents an opportunity for strong CSR contributions to receive positive acknowledgement that can be long-lasting. But the risks of criticism for underperformance are also high. Work with your communications teams to get the messaging right. Be humble. Don’t be opportunistic or communicate in ways that could be perceived as opportunistic.
  • Capture and act on lessons learned. Learn from failures in risk preparedness and management.
    • Evaluate existing internal governance procedures and protocols. This includes reviewing and updating (or introducing) strategic plans (e.g., disaster preparedness plans, crisis communication plans, disaster response protocols). Ensure that plans contain protocols for biological hazards.1
    • Improve internal risk awareness. Many companies still do not incorporate CSR risks into their broader risk management frameworks and toolkits. This needs to change. In response to epidemics, holistic company responses, of which CSR is a critical element, are required.
    • Review which partnerships worked well in times of crisis, which didn’t, and why. Reassess and rebuild strategic partnerships accordingly.

 Key Mistakes to Avoid

  • Getting priorities mixed up. Your company’s number one needs to be staff safety. CSR should work closely with the HR function to ensure employee safety and wellbeing. Only then should you move on to other response activities. Special attention needs to be paid to staff in jobs that may be at higher risk: tellers, receptionists, floor sales/service staff, medical staff, counselors).
  • Sharing unverified information. Communicate only facts. Have a personal checklist ready as well as a list of trusted sources for daily updates. Monitor everything but share selectively. Your internal and external stakeholders depend on your ability to sift through the noise of information and distill verifiable, actionable facts.
  • Neglecting your own wellbeing. Take good care of yourself and your team. While you put in all those extra hours, make sure everyone stays healthy, physically and mentally. Remember, if something happens to you, you will be of no use to the greater effort.
  • Becoming distracted. You'll be receiving many offers from people with different ideas and varying focuses.  Prepare to graciously decline requests that don’t align with your strategic objectives and focal activities, and to react, as necessary, to possible criticisms for saying “no.” Work with corporate communications colleagues to optimize communication strategies and even develop scripts.
  • Using a blanket approach. Depending on location and personal circumstances, your company operations, employees, supply chain partners, and other important stakeholders will be at very different stages of the crisis. Some crisis management stages will overlap or happen in parallel. Thus response and communication plans must be flexible and differentiated. Continuously review and recalibrate as needed.
  • Using the crisis to make a quick buck. Price lifting to make opportunistic profits is a big ”no.” The reputational risks over the long-term arguably far outweigh any near-term commercial benefits. On the other hand, there is no harm in charging normally for your products and services. Discounting is not necessarily required. But prepare to justify pricing practices.

 Key Things to Keep in Mind

  • Don’t overlook supporting internal stakeholders. CSR should work alongside other key functions to coordinate initiatives, both to mitigate harm to the company and to maximize support to internal cohorts in need. This can range from supporting the development of new standards, protocols, and workflows; identifying and implementing preparedness and prevention measures for on-site work; and putting systems in place to ensure the physical and mental wellbeing of employees. Key functional counterparts are human resources, environmental, health and safety, operations, marketing, finance, and communications.
  • Don’t put off tough decisions. You probably have other CSR projects underway, with tasks to be executed, targets to be met, and partners to be reassured. But now you have to make room for new initiatives and demands related to COVID-19. The sooner you evaluate the viability of business-as-usual projects and clearly communicate adjustments to key stakeholders, the better.
  • Mobilize cross-industry resources if you can. Coordinated actions carried out across sectors and industries are vastly more effective than individual company actions. If you are in a position of leadership in an industry or industry association, convene likeminded peers to develop and launch harmonized, high-impact initiatives. Collaborate where beneficial.
  • Don’t overlook the opportunity to improve general crisis prevention and preparedness. COVID-19 caught the world off guard. It shouldn’t have. Based on our own research, crisis mitigation and risk reduction programs receive only a fraction of support from companies compared to immediate relief and long-term recovery efforts.2 United Nations data show that development assistance for disaster risk reduction (DRR) is miniscule compared with financing for disaster response.3 But the United Nations also estimates that annual investment of USD 6 billion in appropriate DRR strategies could generate risk reduction benefits worth USD 360 billion.4 Ultimately, reactionary philanthropy is not the solution. The sooner this donor bias in funding allocation is reversed, the better.
  • Invest in game changers. The COVID-19 crisis is a great opportunity for groups of like-minded companies and other stakeholders to jump-start partnerships that connect core values and competencies, link ecosystems, and marshal collective resources in ways that would be game-changing vis-à-vis future epidemics and similar crises. COVID-19 certainly won’t be the last.
  • Seize opportunities for process innovation. The range of measures introduced during this coronavirus outbreak—flexible working, virtual meetings and work groups, online services, automation, digitalization—may provide opportunities for long-term efficiency gains. Don’t revert to established norms if COVID-19 responses reveal process improvements.

Say “thank you.” Celebrate CSR achievements and successes to boost morale and engagement. Communicate results and thank all contributors, both staff and stakeholders.

We hope this summary will help you navigate the complexities of a fast-moving situation. Please do not hesitate to reach out to our expert team for a quick chat or meeting. We’re here to help.

Continue reading:

  • To listen to our podcast on coronavirus impacts for CSR, click here.
  • For a set of practical steps to consider during the coronavirus outbreak, click here.
  • For the 2019 Edition of our Disaster Philanthropy Practices report, click here.
  • For a checklist to improve your company’s disaster philanthropy, click here.
  • For our view on economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak, click here.
  • For coronavirus guidance for HR leaders, click here.
  • For coronavirus guidance for communications leaders, click here.
  • For coronavirus guidance for supply chain leaders, click here.
  • To listen to our podcast series on implications of the coronavirus outbreak, click here.

This piece is adapted from a previously posted article by The Conference Board China Center.


1 As per the United Nations, “biological hazards cover a category of hazards that are of organic origin or conveyed by biological vectors, including pathogenic microorganisms, toxins and bioactive substances. Examples are bacteria, viruses or parasites, as well as venomous wildlife and insects, poisonous plants and mosquitoes carrying disease-causing agents.” (Source: United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) (2019), Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, page 104).

2 Alex Parkinson (2019): Disaster Philanthropy Practices, Research Report, The Conference Board (see here).

3 As per the United Nations, “a total of $5.2 billion for DRR represents 3.8 percent of the total humanitarian financing between 2005 and 2017 – less than USD 4 for every USD 100 spent.” (Source: United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) (2019), Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction) (see here).

4 United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) (2015), Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (see here).



Our Experts

Thought leaders who provide trusted insights for navigating companies and the economy though COVID-19.


Bart van Ark

Managing Director and Principal Investigator


Lynn Franco

Director, Economic Indicators and Surveys


Ataman Ozyildirim

Senior Director, Economics and Global Research Chair


Matteo Tonello

Managing Director, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG)


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Vice President, Labor Markets


David Hoffman

Senior Vice President Asia and Managing Director of the China Center for Economics & Business

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Rebecca L. Ray, PhD

Executive Vice President, Human Capital

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Anke Schrader

Research Director, the China Center for Economics and Business


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Vice President, Human Capital Research


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Leader, Global Sustainability Centre and Program Director


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Executive Director, ESG Center


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Senior Economist


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Researcher, Human Capital


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Senior Economist


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Consumer Dynamics Leader, M&C Center


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Vice President of Education Programs

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Steve Odland

President and CEO


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Principal Economist


Robin Erickson, PhD

Principal Researcher, Human Capital


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Marketing Leader, M&C Center


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Senior Researcher, Consumer Research

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Laura Sabattini, PhD

Principal Researcher, Human Capital

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Robert Schwarz

Senior Researcher, ESG Center


Chiqui Cartagena

Former Chief Marketing Officer & Center Leader, Marketing & Communications

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Dr. Mahdy Al Jazzaf

Executive Director


Devin O’Connor

Former Deputy Director, Economic Research



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