Mastering Social Impact and CSR Strategy Part 4: Finding Champions 

In today’s video, you’ll learn about the advocacy phase of building your social impact strategy. We chat with Nicole McPhail, Co-founder and Managing Partner with Darwin Pivot, and explore how to find your employee and executive champions and how to keep them engaged. We also discuss where to find the unlikely advocates and how to line them up before making your strategy pitch.

Watch, listen to read the full series on developing a social impact and CSR strategy:

Part 1: The Research phase

Part 2: The Articulate phase

Part 3: Benchmarking

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Read what we discussed:

Karl Yeh:

So my guest today is Nicole McPhail, who is the managing partner and co-founder of Darwin Pivot. Today we're talking about part four of our series on how to build a social impact strategy. So Nicole, we talked before and you were mentioning part four is about advocacy. So can you explain a little bit more?

How to build a social impact strategy: 

Nicole McPhail (00:49):

This is a pretty important step. I think I say this about every step though.

Advocacy is essentially just finding internal champions that are going to help you get your pitch across the line.

And it's really important to develop these relationships, not just for getting that buy-in.

I don't really like just transactional relationships.

I think it's a matter of also understanding the partnerships that you'll have when you do get that buy-in and how you can find mutually benefiting wins for one another.

So again, you can't really gain advocates until you've spent the time articulating what it is that you're doing in the first place, having a clear pitch on sort of your value proposition and then really knowing who to reach out to.

So without those things, you're not even at the advocacy stage. Let's just start with that.

Karl Yeh (01:45):

How has the advocacy been different post pandemic?

As with a lot more people, either hybrid or remote work, I would imagine it's a little bit, or maybe not harder, but different finding those advocates when you're on a Teams or Zoom call versus somebody that you could bring together in real life.

Nicole McPhail (02:09):
I know we had some similar discussions about this couple of years ago and it's really neat to cross compare the different environment that we're operating in now.

I can't even imagine what it's like for say, younger professionals who are not able to have that access to leadership like we had.

I remember when I worked in my first in-house CSR role, I went over and I talked to the founder and CEO to be able to advocate for my own program, which I should add only worked because I was clearly articulate in what I was doing.

But I think now we really have to rely on being proactive about joining things, joining virtual events and stuff like that to build that profile, understanding what Slack channels or teams, groups that exist to be able to insert yourself and really start developing those relationships.

So in that sense it's a lot more challenging, I would say. What are your thoughts on that? What are you hearing from others?

Karl Yeh (03:18):

Executive champions

Talking to other social impact professionals, they haven't necessarily talked much about that advocacy part, but rather more on the gaining executive champions.

Because I think for a lot of them, the program can only go so far as having that leader.

And it is more difficult to get that leader or executive champion who instead of running into them down the hallway or grabbing lunch, trying to find time or going through their executive assistant and just trying to find time in their calendar makes it a little bit more difficult, definitely.

And I think that's what I've been hearing the most is that leadership bind, it's very crucial, but it's harder to get that.

Nicole McPhail (04:18):
That's what I'm hearing as well.

And I don't know if anyone has actually solved for this, but I'm thinking, I wonder if maybe it's a matter of getting creative with say, instead of trying to Slack or email someone, creating a really short Loom video presenting the value proposition or the business case or the strong data points or maybe a really compelling infographic that presents the state of what is now versus what shall come.

I think that we're at a point where we can just start experimenting with new ways to actually build those relationships.

And I think a lot of it is probably through referrals.

And the other way in lieu of actually having one-off casual social connections with people is understanding who've already really invested in this work in the first place and opening with that.

So if you talk to an HR business partner, or actually executive assistants seem to know a lot about what's going on with the C-suite, you could ask them who is already running, giving or volunteering or is really involved in charitable actions outside of work even, and then use that as an opportunity to reach in and get some time on their calendar because they care about this work.

So this might not be as much of the business alignment side of things, but more on the actual social impact side of things.

From a personal side, I've seen that happen too.

And to that point, I mean, there are sometimes advocates that you wouldn't suspect and you have to keep your eye open for these people.

So as an example we gave last time, your vice president of finance might actually be on some sort of not-for-profit board, and the best person to have on your side is finance. So just make sure that you look also outside the business side of things.

Karl Yeh (06:19):
To me, this is one of the most important ones, even though it's boring.

Because I think when you... We're obviously going to cut that boring part out.

But I do believe one of the key things I keep hearing from comments that we're getting is, "How do I connect with my leader?"

It's easy if it's top down. If the CEO does it, it doesn't matter, right?

Everyone's going to get on board. But if let's say it's sort of a program that somebody thought of, "Hey, it's a good idea," but it's not really, no one knows about it.

Or if they're in an organization that has no history of social impact, but somebody thought, "Hey, you know what? It's a good idea to have this," but no one knows what that means.

I think having that executive champion is so big.

And then my next question to you would've been, what are some best practices to get that champion?

How do you go out and actually go out of your way to find that person, connect with them and have them advocate for you if maybe they have a slight interest, maybe that's the door that you could stick your foot in and you could walk through.

But how do you go about doing that?


Best practices to get leadership and executive champions

Nicole McPhail (07:36):

And I mean, I think sometimes it helps if you self-reflect on what would make you do something that is not in your regular day to day when you're super busy.

So understanding how someone might make a decision can really, I think help with that.

So as an example, one specific team in the company is struggling around their culture.

This could be say, let's just make up the sales organization.

And so maybe what you could do is reach out to someone that's not super senior, but a director and say, "We are considering thinking how to bring team building opportunities through skills-based volunteerism or just team volunteering that we could facilitate. I know you have a growing team. Is this something that you might be interested in piloting?"

And you could potentially get someone in by solving one of their problems without them having to do the actual work and framing it as a pilot.

That could be the exact way that this champion might bring it to their leader and say, "Hey, did you know that we could potentially do this? You want to try this out? Sales organization could set the standard for the rest of the organization."

That's the sort of way that I think could work.

You got to almost think like a salesperson, what is going to benefit them? What's going to benefit you?

And how do you make it really easy for them to give it a try without a lot of pain or without a lot of consequence?

That is one way to get a champion.

Another way is through other people.

So if you know of someone that is well recognized within some sort of community, maybe it's a DEIB, ERG, that type of person might actually have or be a catalyst to push forward initiatives if you can support them and their efforts in the EIB world through volunteering and giving.

So I think that's how you can get creative in more of a closed online world rather than the way it used to be.

Karl Yeh (10:07):
So one thing I wanted to know is there's obvious places where your advocates are coming from. Right? You've got maybe your internal champions that have already set, maybe it's top down, but where are some places one would go to find that those unlikely advocates that are as important, but it's not in the most obvious places?

Where to find unlikely advocates

Nicole McPhail (10:32):
Sometimes we miss frontline employees.

We're often looking at the C-suite, but advocacy comes at all levels in the company.

And you need champions that are going to help you actually execute out on these things and be the voice of the employee.

And so I would say not forgetting satellite offices or brand new employees who are just being onboarded.

Those could be the future champions that you actually really need.

And then the other ones that I mentioned too are people sometimes overlook finance and finance is an amazing partnership and they can see the value of retaining employees and things like that.

They're also the budget holders often.

And so I think in my previous world, finance was my biggest champion.

I loved them.

And they also helped me when I was going into say, board meetings, understand how to effectively position the work that we are doing and show how we're investing our funds and things like that in a time when I was young in my career and didn't know how to do some of that stuff.

So I would say that's a really good one.

And the last one, which I mentioned before, are the executive assistants.

They manage C-suite calendars.

They know a lot about what their execs care about, and they can often help get you time and knowledge about the work that you're doing or how you should be positioning it.

Karl Yeh (12:09):
So Nicole, what are some, I guess, if a person was or a social impact professional was just starting to try to find those advocates, what are the first couple steps to help them out?

Starting point to finding your advocates

Nicole McPhail (12:21):
I would say go back to your articulate and back it up phase and think about what you're trying to achieve and then think about what gaps you have for achieving that.



So as an example, if you're trying to, I like to use the same example just to keep it consistent, attract and retain talent.

This is what you're solving for.

You then probably want to find some champions within HR.

What do you need to know about your HR executive and HR priorities that are going to help you position yourself and find those advocates?

So who should I talk to? Well, HR business partner would be a good one.

The chief people officer's executive assistant will probably be a great place to start.

And they're really cool thing with that is if you have an open person who's willing to help, you can say, "Who else should I talk to?"

You would be surprised at how many people are actually excited to talk about this type of stuff.

I've seen clients actually go in and ask that question and then next thing you know, that executive assistant used to actually support the chief marketing officer.

And next thing you know, you're having a conversation with that person.

The other thing in terms of developing champions I would say is if you go in and just ask honest questions about what they think this potential CSR program should look like, I think you would be shocked at how many people have opinions on this.

That might find you champions in the first place. Just ask the question.

Karl Yeh (13:53):
So Nicole, what's the best place to reach you?

Nicole McPhail (13:55): is my email address. Shoot me a note.

Find me on LinkedIn, Nicole McPhail, or you can hit us up on our website at