How to build business changing social impact programs

In today's episode, you'll learn how to get started building effective social impact programs for your business. We chat with Michelle DiSabato, President and CEO of Community Impact Consultants, and explore recent changes in the corporate social responsibility space and how businesses adapted. We also discuss where social impact is headed in the next few years and how companies can prepare. 

Watch the episode:

Prefer to listen? 

What we discussed:

Karl Yeh:

In today's episode we got a very special guest.

Her name is Michelle DiSabato, who is the President and Founder of Community Impact Consultants. Today we're going to be talking about the state of corporate social responsibility.

Michelle, have you noticed any changes in the corporate social responsibility space over the past year? And what are some of those, I guess, key [00:01:00] elements that contributed to those impacts?

What were the changes in the CSR industry over the past year?


Michelle DiSabato:        

Well, thank you for having me.

And of course, I think our sector is in a state of growth, in both importance, but also alignment with our businesses.

We spent a long time as a sector being the nice-to-have, "If we have extra money at the end of the year, give it to the corporate social responsibility people so that they can do good."

But as we've spent [00:01:30] the past year in a pandemic, we've spent the past year dealing with social injustice.

And even before that, our investors calling us on the map for what we're doing.

Our business as are saying that we need to make sure that what we're projecting socially is aligned with who we are as a business and what we stand for, and that it's contributing to help us achieve our business goals [00:02:00].

Karl Yeh:                      

How has business adapted or not adapted to these social changes?

Michelle DiSabato:     

I think for a long time, as I said in a moment ago, we were the nice-to-have.

But when I think about, I think it's about five years ago now, when Larry Fink from BlackRock came out with his first letters to CEOs, to investors to say, "Hey, we're the largest holder of many of your companies, BlackRock as an institution. And we are going to be holding you accountable for social issues and [00:02:30] how you are addressing them, both in those that you may be contributing to, that are aligned with your business."

I think it's the first time that we've had a different set of eyes, and we've had the people down the hall in the investors relations department asking us what we are doing.

That's why I think we're at the ultimate sense of growth where we can get to a concept such as shared value.

Where we're contributing not only to society and to the issues [00:03:00] that we're trying to address, but to our business goals as well.

Karl Yeh:                      

And so have you noticed any differences with how businesses actually measure their social impact, or maybe haven't changed at all over the past year?

Changes in how businesses measure their social impact?


Michelle DiSabato:    

In the past year I haven't seen as much. I think people have been focused a little bit more on how to address their workforce and the internal business issues.

But I will say, over [00:03:30] the past five to six years, I've definitely seen a difference where people understood now that it's no longer okay to have strategies that aren't aligned with our business.

Our focus areas need to be aligned and contributing to our business.

I think, coming out of all of this, with the sense of getting back to normal, we're setting forth a goal amongst ourselves to really contribute, to change [00:04:00] and contribute to our business, as well as the issues that we're facing as a society.

Karl Yeh:                      

And you kind of touched on this, I guess, where you're talking about the strategy of businesses that don't really align with their business objectives.

Have you noticed any changes in terms of the strategy component?


Now I know we just talked about the measurement component, but the strategy component. Because I would assume that over the past year with those [00:04:30] changes, those businesses would be like,

"You know what, we may need to alter how we're doing social impact. Maybe even for both internally for our employees, but also the impact that we're making worldwide or community wide or neighborhood wide."

Have businesses improved their program performance?


Michelle DiSabato:       

Yeah. I mean, I think what we all have to stop and remember is, are the program areas that we're focused on directly linked [00:05:00] to our business?

If you're in a food company, you should be in food security or hunger prevention, not in maybe arts and culture or micro entrepreneurship. It Just doesn't make sense, you want to align your business with those.

The other side is, remember you can't be everything to everybody.

I had a lot of conversations at the beginning of the pandemic, when everybody wanted [00:05:30] to shift really hard and start contributing to health-focused or organizations so that they felt like they were contributing to the pandemic.

And my response was, "Let's take a step back. We're all facing the pandemic, so if you're funding a domestic violence, those organizations are being hit with the pandemic as well. How are you supporting them?"

Those of us that are focused on health and health [00:06:00] issues will be directly contributing to that. It's more about aligning and making sure that you're contributing and supporting the organizations during the pandemic, versus shifting because something else is happening.

For me, it's just, it's making sure that that strategy part of it is directly aligned with your business is. You think about, the three components of this is bringing together your business goals, your business practices and your social impact all coming [00:06:30] together. And that's how your strategy should be set.

Karl Yeh:                      

I asked this to Chris Jarvis I think a couple of weeks go.

And we had a conversation where there was belief that the CSR programs were going to start being like one program.

So it was CSR program is going to be kind of tied into that diversity and inclusion program, and so on.

Do you see that happening where it all amalgamate into one department?

Or does it still stay [00:07:00] separate where you have DE&I in one place, maybe sustainability in another, and CSR in another, I guess, place or run by another person.

Will social impact programs start amalgamating with each other?

Michelle DiSabato:       

Well, it's an interesting question.

When I started, I hate to say it, probably 25 years ago in this space, they were all to together. They were one and slowly got broken apart.

But there could be a reason for them all coming together.

Karl Yeh:                      

Well, and that leads me to the next question. Where do you see CSR [00:07:30] moving towards in the upcoming year or even in the future?

Where do you see CSR moving towards in the next few years?


Michelle DiSabato:      

Yeah, I see it being elevated. I see it being a C-level position, as part of setting strategic direction for the company.

Well, we now have investors focused on our social good and our social purpose as organizations [00:08:00].

Hiring practices, and the new generation wants to go to work for organizations that have the same values and the same sense of purpose as them.

Unless we're elevated to have that level of discussion and that seat at that table, I think businesses would be remiss in not elevating it to be an integral part of planning for the overall business.

Whether it's business goals from [00:08:30] a revenue standpoint, from a hiring standpoint, from an internal policies and practices.

We talked a minute ago about DE&I.

Our CSR position should be elevated to help support the business in making sure that they're right DE&I practices or the right social practices within the company.

Karl Yeh:                      

You know what's interesting is, the discussions we've had about diversity, equity, inclusion, there's always a common [00:09:00] theme.

And one of those themes was that DE&I should be, I guess, integrated at all levels of the business, whether it's your missions, your products, your values, it's all integrated.

And I think that's part of where corporate social responsibility should be.

Where it isn't just, here's the corporate social responsibility team and department, but I think it's also, shouldn't it be permeated all the way from the missions, the values to the products, [00:09:30] everything's integrated with that as well.

Michelle DiSabato:      


When you think about, as I said earlier, the strategies that you're developing, those strategies should be aligned with your business, and what your business may or may not be contributing to or addressing.

If you're in a banking institution, how do you make sure that your social programs are making sure they're getting to the underbanked or the unbanked.

If you're in the arts [00:10:00] and culture space, I had a client that was in that space and was finding that they needed to attract people of color to come in and be within their organization and elevate it within their organization.

How do you get the word out about that? If you're in a technology company, how do you get women to come and be programmers and get tech spaces?

You need to make sure that you are aligning what is your business [00:10:30] needs, not only today, but in the future.

To grow your business and make sure those social issues that you're addressing are aligned with that, and embedded into your business practices is the key thing.

If you're going to run a program that is focused on STEM, when your company is doing their internship hiring for summers, they should be sourcing it from your social good programs, your partners that you just went through doing STEM with. [00:11:00]

That's how to get direct alignment, making sure that you're doing your social good, embedding into your business practices, which will ultimately help you achieve your business goals.

Karl Yeh:                      

If you were a CSR professional just starting today, what advice would you give to somebody who's maybe just starting their program or having a hard time getting traction to get their program moving?

If you were new to CSR, how would you get a social program started?


Michelle DiSabato:      

I think the biggest thing to do is know the business.

Don't just be in your CSR space, go and learn about your [00:11:30] business, from the operations to the hiring practices.

Set up weekly meetings with somebody in each of these departments, go and learn how they operate.

Because what you are doing should be aligned and supportive of each of their businesses as well. And as I said, a moment ago, they should be taking advantage of you.

If they're in HR and they're hiring summer interns, they should be coming to you and saying, "Who do you work with that's getting these folks trained [00:12:00] for hard and soft skills, can we source from there?"

So for me, I would say the number one thing is make sure you understand the business, and not just the business of corporate social responsibility, but the business that you're in.

Whether that's manufacturing, whether that's retail, whether that's technology, understand the business and the operations of the business.

Karl Yeh:                      

Michelle, do you have anything else to add in terms of the state of corporate social responsibility or even the trend of CSR going to the future?

Michelle DiSabato:       

[00:12:30] I think, as I said earlier, for the first time we're at a really ...

We're at that apex and we need to take advantage of it.

For me, the best way to take advantage of it is to really go out, set that strategy and determine some indicators that you can measure towards success.

We are the only sector that's ever been so focused on narrative just to make decisions, and in the absence of data we don't [00:13:00] know what's working and what's not.

If we show up at some of these business meetings with some data that tells us about what's working, how we're changing people's lives, how we're changing conditions in the environment, you will get your counterparts at the bus strategy sessions to take note and get that seat at the table finally.

Karl Yeh:                      

Michelle, if anybody wants to reach out to you or connect with you, what's the best place to do so?

Michelle DiSabato:      

[00:13:30] Yeah, I think that best place to start is my company's website,

You can learn more about what we do.

We post blogs out there, but also that you can contact us directly through the website if you want to learn more, or just want to have a conversation.

Connect with Michelle DiSabato