will current trends in csr ultimately see charities and social causes losing out..?

adrian ashton
3 min readMay 21, 2019

Corporate Social Responsibility (“csr” — or also, ‘not being a d!ck’) has been around for as long as there have been businesses : it’s the equivalent of what companies do against our giving to charity or volunteering for causes important to us personally.

It’s also something that can be mired in suspicion, scepticism, acclaim, legislation, policy, and so on — although interestingly, recent research by the Institute of Business Ethics finds that our trust in businesses to ‘act ethically’ is at all time highs (despite high profile backlashes to do with tax, and workers treatment, by some global firms…).

But in the main, the csr initiatives that companies ‘do’ (either gifts in kind, sponsorship, corporate volunteering, and such like) are at the direction of the business itself that’s doing the giving — in much the same way that we as individuals decide which charities we want to give money to, or which causes to volunteer with.

A few years ago, a company in America called Tom’s Shoes refined this csr model into a key plank of its marketing strategy: ‘buy one pair of our shoes, and we’ll give another pair to someone in need of shoes who can’t otherwise afford them’ (aka ‘Buy 1 Give 1’ — B1G1). This model of csr offered a way that we as individuals could more easily assuage any concerns that we have personally that we should somehow be trying to do more to give to those in need, without having to actually give anything, or make any effort beyond our usual consumer purchases (some might say, a very effective way that the private marketplace has made it easier to be philanthropic painlessly).

Subsequently, this model of B1G1 has been adopted by lots of other companies and platforms, even though studies suggest that this model of philanthropy may ultimately actually do more harm than good.

But Tom’s shoes has now revisited it’s csr model in a way that makes me think that we may be starting to see a sea-change in the face of csr (and possibly to the detriment of the charities and causes we want to try and support) — the company is now offering customers the choice over what the value of that other pair of shoes that are being gifted should be used for: either giving a pair away as before, or contributing to a choice of social causes that the customer can pick.

Now, this model of customers choosing the recipient of a company’s philanthropy isn’t entirely new: the Co-operative Group, and Tesco stores invite shoppers to vote for which local charity should receive a financial gift from their trading (albeit as part of a wider csr programme).

But it marks the first time I’m aware of, a company changing the way it does csr because of what it’s customers are telling it — in effect, it’s co-producing it’s csr with its customers, being increasingly led by our personal interests, whims, and fashions.

And is that a good thing? Well, it fits with classical marketing strategy of responding to/being led by customers, but if more and more companies start to follow this lead (as they did with the B1G1 model), then we start to risk some causes and issues ‘losing out’ because they’re not as visible or popular as others, but are nonetheless equally important.

Csr plays a distinct role in the wider fabric of community and voluntary support, but supplements what we choose to do as individuals. If we as individuals start to direct the businesses we buy from as to the causes we want them to support, then we’re likely to give less to those causes ourselves: after all, that cause or group will still be getting something from our purchase price, right?

But it’s unlikely that any private business’s csr will ever equal what we collectively give individually, so this crowdsourced approach to csr may ultimately start to see more of us giving less to charity, and spending more as consumers…