Mastering Social Impact and CSR Strategy Part 1: The Research Phase

In this video, you'll learn how to conduct research to build your social impact and corporate social responsibility strategy. We chat with Nicole McPhail, Co-founder and Managing Partner with Darwin Pivot, and explore connecting your strategy with business priorities, how to get employees involved, and how to differentiate between outcomes and outputs. Finally, we give you the first steps to do internal and external research.

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

Part 2: The Articulate phase


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Karl Yeh:

So my guest today is Nicole McPhail, who is the managing partner and co-founder of Darwin Pivot. And today we're going to be talking about how to build a social impact strategy. This is actually part one of our five part series. Nicole, let's get right into it. The first part, how to actually do research to build that strategy. How do we go about doing that?

Nicole McPhail (00:55):

I think that if you're okay with this, we might even want to step back and talk about why it's important to do in the first place. Does that sound like an okay spot to start?

Karl Yeh (01:04):

Sure. Yeah.

Why building a social impact strategy is important

Nicole McPhail (01:05):

And I love that you're starting with research in general. This is where my heart's at.

I think right now there's a lot of eyes and expectations from consumers and employees and stakeholders on companies to be doing more good.

I think everyone is feeling that in the landscape right now, and I think this opens up a lot of doors for companies to start having these conversations with executives more now than ever.

And also I've actually personally seen a lot of people reaching out asking, how do you get into this space in the first place?

I work for a company, I want to develop this program.

What do I need to do to get started?

And so I think why we start with research is because in order for youth to present anything to a governing body or people that are making decisions on behalf of the company, you need to know your stuff.

You need to know the context.

You need to know the environment.

You have to understand benchmarking to know what other companies are doing so you can properly position what it is you're going to pitch and how much it's going to cost based on the best practices and what's already happening.

I find that's the best foundation to get in there to be able to present this.

And then at the same time, you can also look at internal research.

So I mentioned that employees and consumers and people have these expectations on companies to do more great work and in their communities.

How can you better understand those needs and those gaps within your company, like what employees feel regarding this or what consumers are saying to your client success managers about the need for a CSR program to be in place.

Those are just really strong data points that you can use for creating your pitch at the end. And we'll talk about this in this six step journey.

Karl Yeh (02:58):

When you're doing your research, how different is it when I guess the social impact push is coming from let's say the top down, let's say from one of the C-suites who really wants to implement the program versus a more organic say, bottom up process? Does that impact the research in any way?

Top down vs. bottom up social impact impact pressure

Nicole McPhail (03:20):

Oh my gosh, that is such a great question and I feel like that question actually feeds into the next step around how are you going to create your narrative in the first place.

So for instance, if you have some directive from the top that's saying, we need to design a strategy, ESG is front and center right now, you need to start asking questions about why they want the program to exist in the first place to know what type of supplementary data or research you're going to need to do.

So as an example, if a company is coming from the very top, you have a C-suite saying, we need ESG specifically instead of CSR, which are different.

We can talk about that. You need to ask follow-up questions about how they're going to be using this, why they wanted to have it in the first place because if it's for instance, an ESG strategy and the report they're looking for, that's essentially a set of standards that companies have to adhere to, and then they put the programs in place to be able to comply on this ESG rating.

If it's say around CSR, they want to do good, they want to be better, then you're going to want to do a benchmarking research using reports like CCP giving you numbers.

You can talk to technology companies like Benevity to understand what competitors are doing, what companies of similar size and industry are doing.

That's the type of research you're going to want to know. If it's coming from the bottom up, that's when your research can be a little bit more qualitative and quantitative, meaning you want to hear the voice of the employee, you want to hear that need, we want you to be doing better at X company, or that's when you're going to need to be thinking as well around what say employee programs look like and conduct your research in that arena.

So you need to do a lot of follow-up questions to understand the why before you can even think about what you're going to research and what levers you will pull.

Karl Yeh (05:16):

Yeah, I think when we had this conversation, I would say about two years ago, I think the big thing I learned was how do you go about connecting your social impact strategy, well your entire program to the business priorities. So how do you do that in the research stage?

How to connect social impact strategy to business priorities and objectives

Nicole McPhail (05:37):

So the first thing, and especially if you're not high up in the company, don't fret, it's okay.

Your biggest resource from my experience is the HR business partner. So talk to them, find out what the business priorities are.

This could be as top level of how you're trying to attract and retain talent because you can find research on data that suggests the importance of having these strong programs for attracting and retaining your talent.

And those HR business partners will also know maybe underlying priorities that say, say you have a new CEO who caress a lot about innovation, well, you might be able to by understanding this pitch signature programs that have to do with skills-based volunteerism that are all around innovating the not-for-profit sector as an example.

So having all of that information equips you to know where to go and where to start.

And then in terms of aligning it more specifically to the higher arching priorities, this is when you can really think about where your program might need to fit in the first place.

So if you understand that it is around a top priority is attracting and retaining talent for the company, then maybe you want to be talking to HR leaders on how to get the budget to bring in the program under that.

If it's around ESG, maybe you should be looking to speak with finance or to maybe directly into a CEO type governing body.

That is all part of the why.

And then you can make those alignments.

There are some companies who don't have to do that. I've met a couple of companies who they just want to do good.

They feel it's their social mission to give back, and you don't need that explicit alignment, but you still need to be very thoughtful on why you're doing the work and measuring out on that impact or those outcomes I should say.

Karl Yeh (07:27):

Now we talked about connected.

We'll talk about connecting with leadership in another video, but I think when we're doing the research, how do we go about doing it with the employees?

How do we go about knowing what they care about?

Because that could be for a big organization, that could be a multitude of things, or if it's a small organization, it could only be one or two things.

How to build your strategy with employees

Nicole McPhail (07:54):

Yeah, and I would say that you can attain this data in two ways, and I would suggest using both.


So of course you could do a survey.

It doesn't have to be a company-wide survey if you don't have access to that. So say you're a matrix organization, you can't just send out a survey, but what you can do is craft a survey and then talk to local partners and country managers or HR business partners and get them to reach out and get a pulse.

And this could be done at town halls, people are walking by, you could have kiosks set up for them to answer these questions.

And then the other way to do it, that's a little bit more organic that I think can override the need to send out a company-wide survey, if you can't, I would love it if you could.

Focus groups

But if you cannot, then you can run focus groups and try and find some local leaders and they don't have to be senior to just start asking questions of employees to understand how they feel about certain things.

And so some examples of things that you can get a sense on is how they feel about the company's current CSR efforts.

  • Do they know about them?
  • Are they involved in them?
  • Why or why not?

And that allows you to create a gap analysis, so to speak.

So if say the company doesn't have them and people want them, there's an opportunity.

If the company has them, but the employees think that they're not doing a good job, you can see that pretty quickly.

The other thing that you can do as well, so if you say have an existing one strategy, and I don't like to, I'm not putting shade on the United Way, they do great work.

But for instance, if a company has a United Way campaign and they want a broader CSR strategy, often the CEO or C-suites think that employees love the United Way campaign.

And so we worked with one client actually when I was at Benevity, who just asked their employees what they felt about the United Way campaign and the CEO was shocked at the fact that people wanted both.

They wanted choice and they wanted the United Way campaign. It debunked assumption, it allowed them to put the pieces in place to be able to create something totally new.

So that's the type of employee specific content and data that I would suggest looking into before you do anything.

Karl Yeh

So when we talk about measurement, and you touched on that, one of the things I've learned interviewing a lot of social impact professionals is that there is an issue with outputs versus outcomes.

So when you're doing your research, how do you integrate in ensuring that you aren't just collecting outputs from your social impact program, but actually really affecting change in let's say, the people, the community, or the organizations that you're looking to help?

Outcomes vs. Outputs

Nicole McPhail (11:13):

I feel like those are considerations and things that you need to be able to address if you're pitching a program in the first place.

So if someone doesn't have a program yet and they're looking to figure out how to get that buy-in or put it together, you're not probably going to understand quite yet what your inputs and outputs and outcomes are because you haven't officially created your overarching strategy.

But once you get to that point, I think that reality is a lot of companies and CSR practitioners really have a hard time getting their head around, to your point, the outcomes, aka the impact and I would say it's arguably pretty impossible because a lot of it is going to be relying on self-reported metrics.

And so I think for those people, once you can understand what you are solving for and what you can reasonably measure, don't try and pretend like you can or put that stress on yourself that you can necessarily measure impact when you can't.

But what you can do is set good goals using benchmarking data from companies of similar size or industry, not even the same industry.

That doesn't always matter.

And use that as a north star in the beginning. And then once you get a sense of how you are actually operating, then you can flex your program and then you can think and define outcomes that actually make sense.

And I would say the other thing with that, and I think this is an important message for CSR people because I was one, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do this.

It's a lot to expect of not-for-profits to actually be able to collect the stories and the outcomes and that's okay if you're building strong partnerships and you know the mission and you trust these organizations and you trust your people, your employees, to make decisions about where they want to give and volunteer based on their relationships.

So that's a long answer to say, you know what it's going to take time, use benchmarking to set those standards for yourself, and then you can refine and then you can add onto it, and then you'll have a bit of more of a pulse and sense of where you want to go with it.

Karl Yeh (13:35):

So Nicole, do you have anything else to add in terms of the research phase of building a social impact strategy?

Nicole McPhail (13:42):

So let's break it out into two sides of the research.

For someone who's building a new program, you got to look at it internally and you have to look at it externally.


Internally, what you need to know is are there any CSR activities happening today?

If so, what are they and who's involved?

The reason why you want to do this is if you're trying to bring in a newer CSR strategy and say, vice president of finance is doing some pretty great work in one area, you might want to lean into that and get them as a champion for the future.

Or if they're not doing something that's aligned to the company, you're going to have to put in some change management efforts and you don't want to step on toes, so you need to know what's going on.

The second is you need to know what employees care about.

So that's done through the employee surveys and the focus groups that we talked about.

Ask questions that allow you to compare what someone's saying versus what they're doing.

Ask questions that will help you understand value sets versus how they feel the company is operating.

And then also do internal research on what key business priorities are in existence and what's happening in the business.

So this could be looking at HR business partners and finding out where the company's focusing if you're not privy to that information.

And it could also be a matter of looking at talking to them about changes that could be happening, like mergers and acquisitions, stuff like that that would impact the timing of your pitch.

That's really, really essential for you to know.


And then external, you're looking at the broader landscape. So you want to know CSR trends, what's happening, what data can support the case that you're going to make.

So if you're going to, for instance, make a case that you are helping with attracting your training talent, you should know that millennials are willing to take a 70% pay cut to work for a company that caress.

You should know if it's a consumer facing value proposition, you should know that, I think it's 64% of consumers will boycott a brand that they don't think is socially responsible.

And then the last thing is you just need to know the landscape in terms of best practices in CSR.

So you should be looking at reports like CCP giving in numbers.

I know Benevity does an impact report every year through Benevity Labs. That's the type of stuff, you need to be an expert.

So that's my soapbox on research, and hopefully folks can get a few tips out of that.

Karl Yeh (16:04):

So Nicole, if anybody wants to connect with you or Darwin Pivot, what's the best place to reach you?

Nicole McPhail (16:10):

Yeah, you can find us at or you can email me at