The Next Frontier of Social Impact: How CSR Professionals are Shaping the Future

This episode we discusses the history and evolution of the role of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) professionals, and how their work has shaped the future of social impact.

Watch the episode:
Prefer to listen?

Key Highlights:

  • The CSR profession has evolved from informal relationships and donations to a more structured and formalised role.
  • Originally, CSR roles were largely administrative, with little focus on social impact.
  • Cause marketing emerged to increase brand visibility through good community work.
  • CSR roles were later structured around employee engagement, strategic grants and relationships with local communities.
  • The increasing national and international awareness of the value of CSR has been key to its recognition as a profession.
  • CSR roles are now located in companies spanning the HR, Marketing, and Philanthropic teams.
  • Many companies are turning to CSR professionals to help shape the future of social impact.

Read what we discussed:

Karl Yeh

So today, my guest, you've probably seen her before, Nicole McPhail, welcome back to the show. She is the managing partner of Social Impact and co-founder of Darwin Pivot. Thank you very much, Nicole, for coming back.

Nicole McPhail (00:38):

My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

Karl Yeh (00:40):

So Nicole, we're going to be talking about how the corporate social responsibility professional has changed.

But before we get into that, maybe we can or you can kind of go through the history of the role itself.

History of the Corporate Social Responsibility professional


Nicole McPhail (00:54):

Yeah. So this CSR became more formalized back in the 80s and 90s or so, when companies were really trying to basically have the right to operate certain communities, I guess.

And so there were more informal relationships made with not-for-profits and those organizations, but they were traditionally sort of led by someone at the top that's just building these relationships and then they're sending out money to causes that kind of made sense to them.

And so the campaign model came in a little bit later, and that's with United Way.

Campaign Model

And this was a little bit more structured and formalized, but it was basically an administrator who was processing employee donations that were being made on behalf of the company to United Way organizations. And so that was a very administrative burden on just someone who had nothing to do with CSR and I think they were basically just checking the box to get it done.

Cause Marketing

And so as we move on to Cause Marketing that happened, this is actually in the 90s, and sorry, I misspoke.

That sort of informal giving was happening way back in the 50s.

Cause-marketing sat more in maybe a marketing team and it was a hundred percent around how you can build up your brand just by doing good in the communities.

And that's where the CSR role sort of sat at that point.

And so when we furthered on then we were looking at sort of the employee engagement model in combination with strategic grants that were being donated and giving out.

And that's when I think a lot of companies started to realize we needed someone more focused on this type of work and what better type of person than people that understand the employee base, but also can build those relationships in the communities.

So the role looks a little bit different at that point based on the company that you're in, whether you fall within HR and you're just a program manager that's also doing CSR or if you actually fit on a philanthropy team.

It really depended on where that company's CSR strategy started in the first place. And so now this is where we're at and I might pause there because I think that's kind of where you were hoping to go next.

Karl Yeh (03:11):

Yeah. I think before we get into that though, it's interesting how it started purely as administrative, but then people started realizing that role.

When did you think it became maybe the national consciousness or international consciousness, I guess, that this role isn't just somebody who takes dollars or just works on a spreadsheet?

Although I would argue a lot of social impact professionals still work on spreadsheets.

But today, it was just sort of at the side of their desk and it wasn't focused on social impact, it was just oh, it was like an administrative... This is how much this person gave at this time and this is the amount.

When did CSR become professionalized?


Nicole McPhail (03:57):

I think I would guess that the value of CSR was starting to get recognized once the cause marketing came into play.

And so wait, should we invest more money when we are seeing financial benefits of giving back to communities?

And then it began to grow from there.

So then when we think about, okay, wait, employee engagement's pretty important, turnover costs a lot of money, can we do something in and around this area to be able to attract and retain talent through these types of programs because people are hardwired to do good and generosity makes you happier, less depressed, all of those things.

So this is the type of people or programs that they want in their companies.

And so I think what happened at around that point is people realized, okay, well there might be something here that looks inauthentic, that's not good.

And employees are saying, we care about these programs and they have to be authentic. we won't buy from companies that aren't operating in that way and we don't want to work for them either.

So I feel like that's when the tail started to wag the dog a little bit, so to speak, where the consumers and employees were starting to drive the behaviors around CSR within the companies. And that's just happening now.

So this is the first time in history that I've personally seen and I've been doing this for 15 years, a lot more companies standing up and doing things for the right reasons rather than foundation boards just doing it because they have a financial duty to do so.

Karl Yeh (05:26):

Got it.

So let's move forward then to what the social impact responsibility professional looks like today.

What does that role look like?

What does the CSR profession look like today?


Nicole McPhail (05:36):

Yeah, and I think that this is the product of some of those things I was just mentioning, there's been...

The people are speaking, the people really want this sort of more purpose-filled, authentic place and this is also happening on the tails, or actually we're still in the midst of the great resignation.

So companies really have to think about who they are as a company and purpose is becoming front and center.

And what purpose means, it varies, I guess for a lot of companies, but you think of it from who you are as a company and how someone can align with that brand.

And I'd say arguably this is how leadership is setting the stage for who they are.

And this could mean as a corporate citizen and how they operate as well as how you are making people feel about the work they're doing, is it purpose-filled?

And then also how you're thinking about supporting them as individuals for showing up at work.

And this can come from some of the employee giving and volunteering programs and things like that.

And so when you think about the CSR practitioner, we aren't just thinking about executing out on the transactional programs anymore, we have to be a lot more strategic about where we are bringing purpose to the table and how we're infusing this in all of three of those aspects and purpose that I just mentioned, which is who we are as a company.

So advising executives on what that actually means and how they can do this with the decisions that they make, the vendors that they partner with, how they hire, all of that stuff to the way that someone feels about their role.

You can infuse purpose and authenticity and a whole bunch of pieces, even CSR aspects to the way that someone is operating and then the programs and the support and the ethos and all of those things from the employee level, not just about them at work, but also extending to how they can involve and role model to involve their family and role model to their children and people that they engage with from the day-to-day.

Karl Yeh (07:37):

So how have the, I guess the roles that I also see now, so for example, diversity, equity, inclusion, sustainability, I see a lot of people with different titles yet there's a lot of overlap with a social impact program.

And what I've also noticed just in conversation, people are doing different things in different companies, so it doesn't seem like there's a standardized, well, here's the... I'll take communications, here's the internal communications team or person, here's the external communications team in person.

And generally people know what the internal comms person does, the external comms person does.

They know what the software engineer does varying on different companies.

But it seems that from social impact, there's a lot of different moving parts or roles haven't been defined. How would you describe that?

How is the CSR role being categorized and defined today?


Nicole McPhail (08:37):

You're bang on.

And so when I was talking about sort of the social impact role now, maybe I was over speaking in that that's where it's going, that sort of there's a lot more emphasis put on that sort of holistic perspective on purpose as a whole, especially with some of the new standards around ESG and things like that.

There's new obligations of social impact practitioners, but to your point, there is a huge variety in terms of how companies actually structure their program.

And a lot of it has to do with that journey that I talked about in the beginning, which is why they have the program in the first place.

And not everyone is going to be over here at purpose.

Some people might still be doing just a United Way campaign every year.

So we've got everything in between.

And then the way that the professional comes in, the social impact or CSR professional comes in, is based on that.

So if you're reporting to legal, because that's the reason why you have the program in the first place, it's sort of checking the box, the way you're running your programs, the way that you're thinking about the work is going to be different than say a company that came in and said, you know what?

Let's build this from scratch.

Let's design for X and then hire the appropriate team to accomplish it." So that's why you're going to see different titles like corporate citizenship, CSR, social impact.

Some companies are thinking more outwardly, so often if you see ahead of social impact, they're really thinking a lot more about external partnerships and long-term relationships that they can set and measure change and impact over time, employee engagement around CSR's more around employee programs, which are just getting people involved and tracking it based on how many people in their company are participating.

So you're going to see everything in between, but I think if you're looking into getting into CSR, I would say be the person that creates what it should be rather than just following along because it's always been that way. And sometimes I think social impact practitioners or CSR people feel handcuffed to the way it was versus really thinking strategically about where it should be.

Karl Yeh (10:52):

I know I've done so many different interviews asking the question about how do you get leadership buy-in from your organization?

Now I also haven't heard or haven't seen very much where the social impact professional ESG, DE&I, all those different roles have actually a seat at the table, the proverbial table, where there's an actual executive level person and maybe there are one or two or a couple in bigger organizations.

But I haven't really seen that.

Is that something that the practice is moving towards or we're still maybe a couple decades away?

When will the social impact professional have that representation in the C-Suite?


Nicole McPhail (11:37):

Yeah, I think that there's a very small amount of companies that actually are closer to that point.

And these are when the CSR leader is reporting to the CEO.

That is the best place you can be.

And I think that's a dream for most CSR people.

So right now it is about the relationships and making sure that you find yourself in the right business unit that makes sense for what you're trying to do with your program.

So obviously the CEO is a really great spot to be, but I would say if you could get in human resources, you might be able to have more flexibility over people programs, which is pretty important.

But it really does depend on your company about how you're going to gain that access.

But I think the big thing for getting buy-in, isn't necessarily just having a seat at the table, it's how to position the value of the work that you're doing and that again, aligns heavily to what it is you're solving for in the first place.

So for instance, if you are solving for consumer brand, you need to talk about the fact that people are belief driven buyers.

You need to have data points on how consumers make decisions and how important it's to be doing these authentic things in your communities.

If you're solving for employee engagement, you can need to talk about the five generations that make up the workforce and how you need to have flexible programs that will make sure that you retain your people.

And many of them, especially after the great resignation, are rethinking what purpose means, what they want to do for their communities.

And the companies need to be there, I guess holding their hands along the way. So some companies are solving for all of these things and that's great too, but you just need to really understand that value proposition and do that research first to build the case and then to build those relationships and then all of a sudden you're making a lot more traction.

Broadening your strategy

Karl Yeh (13:35):

Isn't it a bit of a danger?

Because I know you mentioned one of the dreams would be to report directly to the CEO, but isn't there a danger that if you are reporting to the CEO or this is sort of a initiative driven by the CEO, if that CEO leaves and a new CEO comes, isn't the program kind of dependent on one person rather than it's an established, I guess a fact in the organization?

Nicole McPhail (14:03):

It could be.

And I think the way to get ahead of that is don't base your program and only have the CEO making decisions.

The CEO is just someone that becomes an advocate for you.

So when the CEO buys in, then you can get additional buy-in from other executives and then functions within the organization.

So if you build at a strategy that's solving for many and then you have that platform to talk about it and show the value, then I don't think that a CEO leaving is necessarily going to affect it because your consumers...

You've already created these strategies, your consumers are then used to it, your employees are used to it.

Marketing is seeing the brand benefits of it, it's already embedded. It just gives you, I guess it's like the escalator to making change is by having that access to the leader rather than the leader being the hinge pin.

Karl Yeh (14:57):

I know we were talking about what the future holds, but one thing I would like to ask though is, in a lot of... A lot of our audiences are always asking, how do I get started?

Whether it's straight out of school or they want to make a pivot in their career.

So how would somebody get started in corporate social responsibility today if there's nothing, whether, A, it's in a company that doesn't have one or they're just looking to start?

How to get started or become a CSR professional today?


Nicole McPhail (15:27):

I think there's a few different starting points that I typically see and people reach out to me on LinkedIn with similar questions around this.

And so the first is someone that's in a company that doesn't have a CSR program and they think they should.

This is where you go in with a value proposition and you start to build those advocates.

You make relationships.

People sometimes often overlook the HR business partner, this person just knows everything.

Talk to them about the timing that you should pitch this. I believe that we actually have a five step how to build a case for change series on the Social Impact Show.

So I would recommend listening to that. If you're not in a company and you want to be on one of the CSR teams, I say you should... CSR people typically are pretty receptive.


Just message people on LinkedIn, start asking questions and make sure that you are sort of walking the talk.

So are you already engaged in these types of programs?

Are you on say a board for a not-for-profit? That type of stuff matters.

And then if you're a student who is thinking about, okay, what do I need to do to actually break into this?

The tricky thing is there's not a whole lot of CSR degrees out there.

There's more than there was when I was in university. There's definitely more sustainability.

So you could maybe add a master's or something like that in some form of social impact that gives you a leg up. But I think that the real opportunity here though is the relationships that you're building within those companies.

So I say, if you are so desperate to be a social impact practitioner, why don't you just get into these companies, take a role that's parallel.

So it could be within marketing or it could be within HR, and then start building those relationships, start doing the work, and then bridge over into the social impact teams.

It's tough to break in and the roles are very, very sparse. So you have to be a little bit creative about the ways that you're doing it.

The other thing that I might recommend too is I also am very passionate about behavioral science.

And my business partner, she's a social data scientist, and that's another avenue that you can get in because you're thinking about human behaviors, you're thinking about how people make decisions, and then building programs that can surround around positive decision making.

So it doesn't necessarily need to be a direct line between CSR and here you go.

There are a lot of parallel functions that you can just be creative about and find your way in. I don't know if that helps. It's a tough one.

Karl Yeh (18:09):

For anybody looking, just what you said would definitely make sense because it's just maybe a foot in the door or a phone call or a DM or a message or whatever, a connection request away, to actually getting into the position or the company that want to be part of.

And I guess as we close off going into the new year, where do you think the CSR professional is going to be going, whether it's in the next 2, 3, 5 years?

Where will CSR be headed towards in the next 5-10 years?


Nicole McPhail (18:47):

I think it's going to change a lot depending on where ESG takes us as well.


So unfortunately, with specific standards that exist, that could be really good. And so I'll step back.

So ESG is a set of standards that companies need to think about in the way that they run their company, and it's around environmental, it's around by social and it's around governance.

And so the way they show up, the way that they're thinking about the work that they do, and it's essentially this index that makes companies and look more desirable to investors and kind of follow these steps.

And so with these new set of standards, there's going to be companies that need to follow suit or believe they need to follow suit.

And then that puts in CSR people in kind of an awkward position because you might not be a data an analyst already.

This might be a huger scope than you signed up for and why you signed up for this work.

And so I think that there might be a bit of a, I don't know what the right word is, but a discomfort around who else needs to be hired and what that role is going to look like going forward if it's more compliance based.

I love the idea of ESG in theory, but I'm afraid that it might lose sight of some of the good work that people should be doing for the right reasons.

And so I'm interested to see what happens there. And then in terms of what's next, I feel like these roles are no longer just program management roles. They're incredibly strategic.

And as I mentioned, the expectations of these consumers and employees about how authentic and how purpose-filled and how socially driven the companies that they buy from and work for are, this is going to, I guess, increase the responsibility and expectation of social impact leaders to do really good things.

So the roles I think are going to require some more expertise in business and strategy, and all of those broader business elements. I would say that's maybe what's next for social impact professionals.

Karl Yeh (20:57):

I know we could be talking about future trends for a long time, but if anybody wanted to connect with you, Nicole, what's the best place to reach you?

Nicole McPhail (21:06):

Yeah. You can email me at  

And then we have a website at

So you can find us in either of those places or hit me up on LinkedIn, Nicole McPhail.