Evolution of the Social Impact and Corporate Social Responsibility Professional

In today's episode, we discuss the evolution of the social impact and corporate social responsibility professional including the impact of resources, the role and language throughout the decades. We chat with Nancy Murphy, Founder and CEO of CSR Communications and explore current gaps, opportunities and challenges of the profession, how to gain skills and education and where social impact is headed in the next several years.

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What we discussed:

Karl Yeh:          

So I've got two special guests today, my first guest [00:00:30] who's also my co-host, her name is Kerry Lawrence. She is the community investment program consultant with Benevity, and our special guest today, her name is Nancy Murphy.

She's the founder and president of CSR communications.

Thank you very much both for joining us today.

Nancy, let's get right into it.

Today we're talking about the evolution of the social impact professional, [00:01:00] how have you seen the social impact professional?

How have you seen that evolution over the past several years?

Also, talk about terms of the role, the resources put into it and really about, I guess, the requirements for the role. Because I believe that role has definitely evolved and the requirements are much different, let's say a decade ago than today.

How has the role of the social impact professional evolved over the past several years?


Nancy Murphy:            

Well, I'll do you one [00:01:30] better. I'll go back to 1997 when I had my first foray into the corporate social impact space.

And if I think about just the language we used since that period to describe these functions and this work within companies, back in 1997, it was corporate philanthropy.

Then [00:02:00] it was right on the edge of morphing into strategic philanthropy. And then I think my team was called corporate community involvement.

From there, we went to CSR, but then people were like, "Oh, does that capture the environmental stuff that we do? Now it's corporate responsibility." Right?

Then we went into sustainability and social impact and ESG.

How the role was described over time affected how it was valued


And so we've got the acronym [inaudible 00:02:27] we've got all these different takes [00:02:30] on the descriptor for the function.

And so I think that evolution in language is also reflective of the evolution of the role and its value within the organization.

So, way back in the day, the philanthropy used to be oftentimes tied to the CEO's spouses, usually the wife, right, pet projects, even if it was a public company.

Then it started to get more tied to their business, and then we started to look at holistically beyond finances or grants.

What else could companies bring to the table to have an impact in their communities, a positive impact in their communities?

So, as the language evolved and the status within the company evolved, then of course the role evolved.

So, there were companies we worked with back in the day that [00:03:30] had teams of people, sometimes pretty large teams that were basically paperwork processors.

Right? They ran the United Way campaign.

They processed gift match and they wrote a lot of rejection letters for all the unsolicited proposals they got, that they were never going to fund.

Now we've moved beyond that to some people even having a seat at the C-suite table.

So a lot of change over the last 20 years.

Karl Yeh:                      

How have you seen [00:04:30] also when you're touching on, I guess, the resources, right, because back, I guess when you were mentioning in 1995, if it was just a pet project, there definitely wasn't company resources or significant amount of resources put into it.

But now just being new to this space myself, I can see teams, budgets, all these different elements that are put into it, even software tools.

Right? That definitely has changed over the past decade. And if you think about it, decade or even [00:05:00] 20 years, isn't that very long.

How the resources given to social impact has changed


Nancy Murphy:            

No, I mean, certainly not in the scheme of things of ... some of the companies I was referencing that we worked with are over a 100 years old.

Right? So in the big scheme of things, this is a pretty short time period.

I guess also in terms of resources, some of the shifts, like I said, are even thinking beyond grants.

So while financial resources are important and certainly the budgets have grown, we're also [00:05:30] now talking about how do we bring the expertise through pro bono volunteer projects?

I was the chair of the board for Taproot Foundation and served on that board for several years.

And that was at the early stages of this idea of skilled volunteering. Right?

Like we're not just having people, not just, I mean, these things are important, cleaning up parks or serving food at a soup kitchen, it's, "Oh my gosh, if we're logistics experts, we might go into the soup kitchen and completely [00:06:00] rearrange the way that they move people through the line. So that it's more efficient. Right?

So, those kinds of resources looking at products and services and software and computers and all sorts of things that companies can bring to have a positive impact on their communities.

And so, the types of resources have changed in addition to the volume or the size of resources.

I think too we want to be a little careful [00:06:30] of speaking in broad generalizations.

Like all companies are the same on this because probably like anything in my experience, different companies are at different places on the journey. Right?

And so, it's surprising to me how, even in the last few years, the language that some companies are using and their approach to their social impact is still very much that charity, Noblesse oblige, kind of 1950s [00:07:00] mindset, and that was in 2012.

So, I do think that companies are in different places.

And so, while the cutting edge folks are really out there and thinking about this much more holistically and much more tied to the strategy of the business, there are still some folks that are back at that corporate philanthropy stage.


Kerry Lawrence:           

Yeah. I agree.

It's interesting that you say that because I've noticed a lot of clients are really trying to investigate and explore the word [00:07:30] impact and what that means.

Is it just like a charitable donation or a partnership over a long period of time, so you can track the impact?

Or if we're looking at something like climate change, for example, if you are really looking as a company to use your assets and resources to make a change in the space, it could be investing in startups who are looking at innovative approaches for plastic in the ocean kind of thing, or how to dissolve plastic. 

I think I just saw something this morning about an enzyme being created to dissolve [00:08:00] plastic. It could be for profit as well, which is interesting, I think as well.

I love how some of these companies are really trying to take a step back and look at the bigger picture about what that means.

Nancy Murphy:            

Well, and I think to that point, right, we used to see companies that might do one thing over here with their good, whatever, if it's the foundation or their philanthropy or their social impact team, and then [00:08:30] the rest of the company was over here doing things that might actually be undermining that. Right?

Or in conflict with it, or at least not supporting it.

So now we're having, if we look at the last couple of years, financial institutions that might have community grants and part of their community reinvestment act resources, and they're looking at how do we advance equity and inclusion through all of our financial products and services? Right?


How do we look at the way in which we deliver [00:09:00] those things? And can we increase our positive social impact through the way we do business?

Kerry Lawrence:            Yes.

Nancy Murphy:             So it's a really holistic and exciting space, I think, to be in right now.

Kerry Lawrence:           

Yeah. I love it. They're thinking about how to put the responsibility at the heart of all their entire business plan. I think that's interesting about not having a CSR report anymore.

It's part of your annual report and it's all incorporated.

And we've been saying this for a while now, but [00:09:30] I think for some of these older traditional companies, that's still like a whoa.

Nancy Murphy:            

Yeah, exactly. It's a hard leap to make for a lot of folks. It's interesting.

I guess it was in 2016, we conducted some research around cross-sector partnerships. Right?

And all of the assumptions that we make based on the tax status or the demographics of the partners at the table while nonprofits are ... they're going to be [00:10:00] inefficient and they're going to need all these resources, they're not bringing anything to the table, but they've got their hand out, the companies while they might be trying to green wash or they just want their logo splattered all over everything.

And well, government, they're going to be super slow and lots of bureaucracy.

And we said, let's flip that on its head and let's instead look at the psychographics of the different organizations, because you might have [00:10:30] some folks who are solution seekers. Right?

Which is what we've just been describing. What are all the resources that we can bring to the table regardless of our tax status so that we are co-creating solutions and we're all focused on that solution in the community? Right?

Versus the traditionalists who are like charity, handout, please sponsor our table at our dinner, that kind of ...

Or some of those disruptors who are like, "We don't need a nonprofit to do good in the community. [00:11:00] We're going to be a B Corp or we're going to do our own thing, and we're going to do impact investing."

So it's really interesting to think about the psychographic elements and really how we form partnerships and make assumptions about different entities at the table based on their attitudes and beliefs, not on their tax status.

Kerry Lawrence:           

Yeah. And I think that's key right now, the stakeholder engagement, what type of engagement are you looking for? Is it like transactional?

Is [00:11:30] it the different types? And then how are you doing that with the stakeholders that are able to help you collectively solve the problem you're trying to solve?

 And I think they usually go straight to our clients sometimes with that focus area of stem. I'm like, "What are you trying to solve within that though?" Nancy, we talked about how it's evolved over since 1997, I've seen that even in the last five years, how it's evolved so much.

And I see some [00:12:00] of the challenges, some of our administrators or people running these programs have.

What gaps or opportunities are there, do you see in this current role and what challenges are they facing right now?

What are the current gaps, opportunities and challenges for social impact pros?

Nancy Murphy:            

Yeah, so it's interesting, Karl had asked about how this role has evolved, and I think this is related to the opportunities and challenges.

So, back in the day, we used to see companies use their social impact [00:12:30] teams as maybe the place to send people as a reward right before they retired, their cushy last job before they transitioned out, or the place that they could put people where they could do the least harm in their minds. Right?

Like they weren't great performers, but they couldn't really get rid of them, so they just sidelined them over here. And we're definitely not seeing that anymore. Right?

So, we're looking at the professionalization of these roles inside companies and all of the opportunities and challenges that presents, there are now plenty of undergraduate and graduate programs in CSR and sustainability and things like that.

So I think we're starting to see also people who have had different kinds of roles in these companies now coming into that, either being hired in, because they're an expert in social impact, right, which is very exciting.

Or while you've been in [00:13:30] the general counsel's office and you've been in a customer facing role or a client relationship management role, and now we want you in this role. So I think that's really exciting.

Lacking skills to influence c-suite, bring stakeholders at table, or build consensus

 I still think, however, there's a gap around, again, this is a gross generalization.

So, clearly there are folks who have the ability to influence the C-suite and to really get a lot of stakeholders at the table and to do that consensus building, but not all folks have [00:14:00] those skills.

They either don't have the heft, the credential, the formal title, depending on how these roles are structured inside their companies, or they don't have that informal power and authority, those influence skills to be able to elevate the function and the processes and the strategy to the level that it needs to be to have the holistic impact they want to have in the community.

Kerry Lawrence:           

I think you nailed it, [00:14:30] and I think that's ... because it feels like they're trying to do five different jobs at the same time, and they're initially there to manage the grants or manage that. And then all of a sudden, now the CEO is coming down and saying, "Okay, what's our plan and what impact have we made?" And they're like-

Nancy Murphy:            

How do we tie to all these other parts of the business? And if you don't have the opportunity to see across lines of business like that, or functions of the business, it's really hard to fulfill that role completely.

Kerry Lawrence:           

So, I'm just going to ask a question. So say, [00:15:00] for example, I'm an administrator, I've been with this company for 10 years, which is very common. I've been managing these grants, but I want to take it to the next level.

Do you think I should feel a bit of anxiety about the fact that this is happening or do you think it's possible for me to learn all of this to be able to do this?

Or do I need to do a course? What would be the next step?

And maybe we're going to answer this later on, but I just want to know, because I know a lot of listeners will be like, "But how do I do that? Can I [00:15:30] do that?"

Where to gain social impact skills and education

Nancy Murphy:            

Well, I am a firm believer in a growth mindset, so absolutely you can do it. Right?

I think if people want to make the time to grow in their careers and to become more influential, they absolutely can.

Do you need to take a course?

Maybe if that's the way you learn best and you like to have that structure and that fits within your work time and your life availability [00:16:00] and the resources you have available.

Absolutely. You can learn a lot of things free on the internet these days. So if you're disciplined enough and you're a self starter and you want to do that, being part of peer networks, I think there are more and more networks. T

here are podcasts like this one that people can listen to.

So, I think the resources, the tools, the tips, the spaces are out there, it's just a matter of being self-aware, where are the gaps? [00:16:30] Where are the gaps that if I fill them are going to make the biggest difference in my own objectives and the company's objectives?

And how do I know that I learn best?

And how do I go find the vehicle and the venue for doing that?

Kerry Lawrence:           

Yep. And know that your priority for the gap aligns with other people within the company. It's what's important to them, I think, too. That's great, thank you for so much for that.

Karl Yeh:                      

[00:17:00] There's actually one thing I want to touch on, and it was ... Nancy, your answer about professionalization.

So going back to, with that professionalization though, it comes with, I would imagine added responsibility, and what I've been hearing from a lot of social impact professionals is, now you actually have to start tying the work back to the business.

So it isn't just a place where you're about to go before you retire [00:17:30] or keep the trouble makers out.

But this is a core piece of the business, but being a core piece of the business means you have to always tie back to like return on investment, and how does it help the business overall?

Defining the ROI of Social Impact

Nancy Murphy:            

Well, yes. And I would say it's more important to understand what are the drivers inside your company. 

So for some companies, the driver may really be a licensed to operate in certain [00:18:00] communities. Right?

And others, it might be deepening relationships with key customers or vendors, and others it might be actually tracking a measurable impact on a social issue.

And I think we're going to get into a little later how that's going to become more and more important given Gen Zs emergence in the workplace and expansion in the workplace in the coming years.

So I think it's important to understand what are the drivers inside your company [00:18:30] and how are you going to lead accordingly and measure accordingly.

And then I think we've also seen a growth in the trisector athlete, if you want to think about it that way. Right?


So folks used to grow into these roles, or a lot of companies would only hire in these roles from within. Right?

They wanted people who knew the business, or they were putting people there before they retired, or it was a reward, a fun thing to do for [00:19:00] folks who'd earned their stripes somewhere else.

But as the field professionalized, we saw more folks coming who had worked in an NGO. Right?

Had maybe worked on the policy making side on the issue that the company was focused on, who had worked in another company.

And so, I think it's coming in if you're new to the business or new to corporate, and understanding everything you can about how [00:19:30] the company makes money about what its risks and drivers are, about what various stakeholders expect from it, what's the long term growth plan. How do we attract and retain employees?

Understanding all of that is key to succeeding in those roles.

Karl Yeh:                      

And I guess the next question to this, it's a little bit related, is, where do you see the role and maybe the teams growing based on where it's been and how it's evolved to today?

How will social impact roles grow in the next couple of years?

Nancy Murphy:            

Yeah. Let's talk about the growth of Gen Z in the workplace.

I think by the end of this year, there are going to be something like 32% of the workforce, and the expectations that Gen Z employees and customers have for the brands they buy from, the companies they support and the places they work are significantly different than even millennials in terms of social impact, environmental impact, 

Kerry Lawrence:           Diversity and inclusion

Nancy Murphy:             Yeah, absolutely.

And not just the talking the talk or bold proclamations grand gestures. They want real, tangible, actionable, authentic practice, initiatives, results. 

Not just nice commitments, and they will leave brands, they will leave financial service institutions. I think [00:21:00] there's an experience study on this.

They will leave employers if they feel like they're not living up to the responsibility to have a positive impact on social challenges to make a real difference on climate change.

If the organization of the company's values are not aligned with their social values, they will leave.

So, that means the teams and the role of these social impact folks inside [00:21:30] companies are going to become more and more important, they're going to become more and more integrated into the business as a whole.

They're going to be much more visible, probably much more forward facing than in the past, because that's just what customers, partners, employees are going to not just expect, but in many ways, demand.

Kerry Lawrence:           

That's a lot. I love that. I think it's true too, from the GenZers that I [00:22:00] know and have grown up like niece and nephew and all their friends, and then seeing how they're communicating with each other, and what's important.

It is admirable in comparison when I was that age.

Nancy Murphy:            

Yeah. Thinking about the metrics too, changing. 

If we might be measuring certain things now that seem fluffy or they're the easiest things to measure and the easiest things to toss in as half a page and a 75 page report, [00:22:30] well, we might need to start thinking about what are the data analytics people that we're bringing on to our teams. 

What are the new ways of measuring and how much are we investing in that so that we can prove the real difference we're making and not just say, "Well, we're doing good things, believe us."

Kerry Lawrence:           

Agree. And I think that fluffiness is hardcore.

What it's been like for so long. Even now working with clients, trying to streamline or get a little bit more focused [00:23:00] on what their pillar is or something, they'll talk about ... or our goal is to make a bigger impact in the community.

I'm like ... What does that mean? But that being said, if we're looking at moving in this direction, and I've read a lot about what you're doing with your clients and the groups that you work with, a lot of it is, you need to be able to ask for what you need.

Like, "What do you need to be able to set yourself up for success [00:23:30] with this? How can you do that?"

And right now, I think, either if you're a listener who's thinking from a lens of an administrator of understanding how to ask for what you need to be able to set this up, or as a leader listening, thinking, how can I set the team up?

How can leadership right now help support the social impact role or even team?

Nancy Murphy:            

Well, so I would say, first of all, look for synergies with that team across other areas of the business.

So, [00:24:00] how are you as a leader facilitating that cross-functional collaboration and incentivizing it? Right?

And one kind of practical tactical way that that can happen is, a lot of big companies have those management training programs or companies have certain requirements where people who are chosen as leaders and put on a succession plan have to rotate around to different functions of the company.

Well, you better [00:24:30] damn well believe that your social impact function should be one place where they're required to do a rotation, or has part of your basic leadership training.

Should everyone have some exposure and opportunity to spend a little time or shadowing with your social impact team?

The more the people across the company have an understanding of and an experience with what those roles are really about and what the work the company is doing is all about, and then they go and pollinate [00:25:00] across the company, that's going to facilitate that.

Then I think helping to align it with the business in appropriate ways.

So depending on what country you're in, there are different restrictions about the interplay of tax deductible dollars and benefit to the business.

But if we're looking at how we leverage the whole of the business to do good in the world and to solve challenges and problems in the world, well, then we need to have [00:25:30] leaders looking for that alignment and facilitating that connection as much as possible.

Karl Yeh:                       Nancy, when we first talked, you mentioned something about artifacts. 

What are “artifacts” and how do they relate to the social impact role?

Nancy Murphy:            

Artifacts are all those little things we leave behind as we move forward with change, that tell us who and what we value, what matters and how things really get done around here.

And sometimes because there are things we've left behind, right, they reinforce old ways of thinking and old ways of working, and they're in conflict with the direction we're heading or with the change we want.

So, artifacts can be anything from, if we think about related to this type of organizational change, a more holistic, more progressive approach to social impact, it can be everything from who [00:26:30] the social impact team reports to.

So, is this a function of HR which sometimes signals certain kinds of things about who they are and what they do? Does it report to marketing?

Sometimes that's the case. Is it now a C-suite level that the rest of the team reports to. And so social impact is right up there at the C-suite.

So, who the team reports to can be an artifact that sends [00:27:00] certain signals that may or may not be aligned with how you're talking about your social impact in 2022 and beyond.

They're language that we use. Right?

Are we still talking about grants or charity or sponsorships exclusively, or are we talking about social impact as, oh it's just that do good stuff, it's the white hot stuff on the side, and it's not who and who we are and what we do.

Physically, where people sit inside the organization, like literally in the office [00:27:30] space sometimes can be a signal.

Does it convey status and respect and the value that the team contributes to the organization, or are they like off in some corner that nobody ever wants? It's like the punishment corner or something.

So, artifacts are all those little things, and we want to make sure that we're unearthing them and we're laying down artifacts that are aligned with the change we want that are going to reinforce the words we're using, because [00:28:00] otherwise people don't believe the change is real. Right?

They don't trust what the leaders are saying, or there's so much friction because everything ... our entire social impact software tracking system is all designed around United Way gift matching or something. 

And yet we're doing all these significant partnerships in the community, but we've got no way to track the resources or report on the impact.

And so, that's a friction, [00:28:30] that's an artifact of an old social impact program that's making it really, really hard for people to do the new kind of social impact program.

Kerry Lawrence:           

And in fact, it's so relevant just to say really quickly, Karl, is that we had a client, he worked at a construction company global and their CEO had been there for a long time.

I think the CEO has changed now. But at the time it was mostly these hallway conversations of just want to fund this, and it was very difficult [00:29:00] to get them out of this one way of doing it and not wanting to follow this new engaging strategy that they were trying to do. So that would definitely be something like, how do we change that?

How do we slowly work that into the culture of our company?

Karl Yeh:                      

Talking about artifacts and how they change, do you see the artifacts of social impact [00:29:30] evolve and change as gen Z comes into these roles, comes into organizations? Do you see that artifacting changing at all?

Nancy Murphy:            

Well, I don't know if I'm understanding your question correctly, but I will pause it that when more GenZ employees come into our organizations, whether they're in these roles or not, they're going to point out the inconsistencies. Right?

They're going to see way more [00:30:00] obviously and easily than those of us who've been embedded in these organizations for decades, the incongruence, they're going to see the conflict, and they're probably going to call out these artifacts.

I think as leaders, what we want to do is invite them, right, give them the space to go on the artifacts digs with us, because they're going to see the things that no longer make sense or that make it seem as if we're not really committed to the change that we're putting out [00:30:30] in the world.

Yeah, we no longer have a separate CSR report.

So we're all in on making ... But it's half a page on page 97 and it doesn't get the glossy infographic or it's not one of the four bullet points that's mentioned in the shareholders call or-

Kerry Lawrence:            It is just one number of how much we've donated and that's it.

Nancy Murphy:            

Right. Exactly. [00:31:00] Or the number of volunteer hours. Right? So I think they're going to be the ones that will immediately point out because the other thing we're learning about gen Z is they're not afraid to speak up, to speak out, to advocate, to ask for what they need and demand what they want. So they're going to point these artifacts out very quickly is my guess.

Karl Yeh:                      

So Nancy, we'd definitely love to know a little bit more about you, how you got into corporate social responsibility [00:31:30] and a little bit more about CSR Communications.

CSR Communications

Nancy Murphy:            

Well, I spent the early part of my education and career, one of those like do-gooders, I was going to go save the world.

And I thought I would spend probably my entire career, or at least a big part of it in the federal government.

So, I came to Washington, D.C., after graduate school as part of the Clinton administration to work in the early days of the national service [00:32:00] program in the US. And I quickly learned that my entrepreneurial spirit and ask forgiveness, not permission mindset did not work well in the federal government.

I'm still a big believer in the value of government and the role in creating societal good, but it wasn't the place where I was going to spend my career.

So, I happened upon corporate social responsibility back then called corporate community involvement, corporate philanthropy, [00:32:30] almost by accident.

I had this expertise in volunteerism, volunteer management, national service, and a global consulting company had a very long time Fortune 50 corporate client that was launching a new philanthropic initiative in the volunteerism space.

Talking about how the profession has changed, they basically outsourced all of the initiative design grant management proposal [00:33:00] review all of that to this consulting firm. So I came in and led that initiative for them.

And that was really the beginning of my corporate social responsibility experience. I never thought I would work in the private sector.

But it was very eye opening because it showed me that there is a path for using business for good. Right? The compassionate capitalism, the conscious capitalism.

And so, from there, I worked my way around [00:33:30] philanthropy and nonprofits, and I'm definitely one of those tri-sector athletes, and I was always that person who would see opportunities where other people saw a challenge, who would see maybe the cracks and the status quo and wanting to challenge that.

So, I was always in this entrepreneur role, this internal change agent role, and I learned a lot along the way about what works and maybe [00:34:00] what doesn't work so well.

And I made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot of lessons and decided to start CSR Communications to really support those entrepreneurs and internal change agents.

Because I believe in the power and the value of large legacy institutions, right, to solve serious social problems, climate change, all of those things, right, at scale. Because they got the reach, the people, the expertise, the resources.

[00:34:30] But we need those entrepreneurs to succeed to get them to realize that vision for change those results that they're driving for.

So, we work with internal change leaders using the human psychology behind organizational change to help them achieve their next big initiative and rapidly expand their impact in the world.

Kerry Lawrence:           

I just have to say my own personal, this just resonates with me personally so much because I've always been that [00:35:00] character of driven and a change maker.

And I was reading through your website and there's one page I was trying to find it and I couldn't find it. But it's the one page where it talks about, "Are you feeling frustrated or do you feel like people think you're aggressive or do you feel like people are avoiding you in the hallway because you're that noisy one who's always saying the same thing over and over again?" I'm like, "Yes, yes."

Kerry Lawrence:           

Like in the past it's always been like that. So, I have to say if you're that type of personality where you're constantly driven, but you feel like you're coming up against [00:35:30] these roadblocks [inaudible 00:35:31] honestly, it's genius.

Nancy Murphy:             Thank you. Thank you.

Karl Yeh:                      

So Nancy, I know we can spend another couple of hours or even days having this conversation, but if anyone of our audience wants to connect with you or connect with CSR Communications, where is the best place to reach you?

Nancy Murphy:            

The best place to start is our website, which is CSRCommunications.com

And if you do forward slash weekly [00:36:00] on that, we will sign you up for our IN-Genius, actionable gems for influential entrepreneurs, little tips and techniques that you can consume in two minutes or less, and then go apply in your daily work.

So, would love to have folks do that, and I'm very active on LinkedIn, Nancy A. Murphy, and would love to connect with folks there.

Question of the Day:

How have you see the role of the CSR and social impact professional evolve? What are some key changes you have seen? How have they impacted your business?