Getting started with Corporate Social Responsibility as an SME

CSR Path

Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR, is becoming increasingly important for SMEs, but it can sometimes seem confusing or overwhelming to know how to get started.

The world’s largest companies boast CSR teams who deliver major programmes throughout their supply chain. They promote and adhere to benchmarking and other international standards, such as the London Benchmarking Group, the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, BITC’s Corporate Responsibility Index and the Global Reporting Initiative.

Comparing your SME to these standards can be daunting and discouraging. Resist the temptation to do so!

Reassure yourself by recognising that you are not really at the beginning of the journey. Every business is likely to have a number of relevant efforts already being undertaken, even if they have not been identified and promoted as CSR yet.

SMEs should take the following approach:

1.    Understanding: Understand what CSR means

2.    Assessment: Assess what you’re already doing

3.    Policy: Set out your company’s commitments to CSR

4.    Strategy: Set yourself time-limited, specific goals to implement your policy  

5.    Evaluation: Evaluate your progress, policy and strategy to keep your CSR work moving forward.

Step one: Understanding

CSR does not mean simply charitable donations or philanthropic work. This is one part of CSR, but it is certainly not the beginning, nor the end of it. CSR refers to those actions that a company undertakes in order to have a positive impact on society. Importantly, it refers to those actions that the company is not legally obliged to do.

I approach CSR as including the following headings:

a. Local Community. For example, how does your business interact with its local community? Is it involved in supporting other businesses, providing internships or apprenticeships, or does it consult locally before taking action that may affect it?

b. Charity. For example, what charity work does your business do? Does it donate pro bono support or do fundraising events?

c. Employee Relations and Wellbeing. For example, what does your business do for its employees that it is not legally obliged to do?

d. Environmental Impact. For example, what steps does your business take to reduce its impact on the environment?

e. Ethical Business Practices. For example, what does your business do to ensure that it behaves ethically and fairly at all times?

Step two: Assessment

External help (if I do say so myself) is extremely useful when understanding what you already do. You may not see something you do as related to CSR, yet it can be an excellent example of how your business behaves responsibly. Understanding what you’re not doing is just as important.

Step three: Policy

Ideally, you will do a range of CSR activities, but deciding what your key commitments are will come down to your brand, values and goals. Your CSR policy should articulate your intentions in a clear and compelling way and should be set out on your website.

Step four: Strategic Plan

Setting a policy is often the beginning and the end of CSR for many businesses, which is not an effective approach. Simply saying your business is committed to something does not make it so. You need to set strategic targets, including specific and measurable actions that demonstrate how you are putting your policy into practice.

Committed to the environment? How will you reduce your carbon footprint each year, and by how much?

Support local charities? What partnerships are you going to introduce and how will you measure the impact you are having?

In the early years, some of these targets may include measuring a baseline for future progress, and even identifying new opportunities for activities. You don’t need to know everything at this point, but you do need a plan for how you are going to implement your policy commitments in practice. Again, this is an area where external support can help and digital platforms like KindLink can be very useful.

Step five: Evaluation

In addition to annual reviews, an evaluation of how well your strategy has been implemented is crucial: what went well? What didn’t? Where do you, as a business, want to take your CSR work next?

Once you have considered everything, it’s time to go back to your policy and review it. Is your policy still relevant or have the goal posts moved? Is it still fit for purpose? What strategic plan do you want to implement for the next period?

The way ahead

Embracing this approach will give you a practical, targeted and relevant CSR approach that will make a positive difference to your business. With employees, clients and government increasingly preferring to work with businesses that embrace CSR, this work will put you ahead of your competitors while you make a positive difference to the world around you.

And that doesn't sound daunting at all!

Felicia Willow

Felicia Willow

Consultant and Owner, Willow Charity Consulting

Felicia has CEO-level experience transforming small-to-medium UK charities. She brings a range of skills—including crisis management, strategic planning, financial overhaul, and fundraising—to help charities achieve their full potential.

Felicia has worked for 11 years in the UK charity sector, with 9 years in international criminal law, international development and human rights. An excellent strategic planner, Felicia has worked as an expert consultant to major organisations including the United Nations Development Programme, World Vision, UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration, and Addaction, as well as successfully delivering a wide range of consultancy support for small-to-medium charities based in the UK.

Willow Charity Consulting

Experts in charitable governance and operational management with significant experience helping charities achieve transformational success, Willow Charity Consulting understand the practical realities of running a charity with a small staff team and highly limited resources, and bring the expert knowledge of the standards and regulations you need to meet so that you can stay focused on your cause.

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