How do I get a job in corporate social responsibility?

17 May 2016

Job interview

You’re about to enter the job market, and you’ve heard all about corporate social responsibility and you know it’s what you want to do. Or you’ve been kicking around in dead-end jobs for a couple of years, and now you want one that has some meaning and purpose. How do you go about it?

First, let’s have a quick sanity check. CSR lives at an interesting halfway house in terms of doing business and making a difference to society. You need to have an interest in both sides of that equation to be able to thrive in this sort of role. 

If you simply care about an issue and want to make a difference to the world, but have no interest in how businesses work and the joy of actually being part of something that is successful in the marketplace – then you probably want to join an NGO, a charity, or a government agency.

Companies have to sell a rigorous business case internally for CSR initiatives, and there are good reasons for this. We need the sustainable companies to be the commercially successful ones. If you have no interest in that, then no CSR team is going to be that attracted to you.

We’re looking for people that drive innovation and performance that will help achieve sustainable outcomes

I’m presuming if you lean to the other extreme, you want to get out there and sell, sell, sell and hang the consequences then you wouldn’t be considering CSR as a career option in the first place.

There are three potential routes into getting a CSR job at a company. These are:

  1. Get lucky, and go directly in at the bottom of the pile in a reasonable sized CSR team.

    This can happen, but the odds are not in your favour. CSR has become a very competitive space – lots of people want to get into it. Even the most humble entry points are likely to be hotly contested. And very few companies actually have sizeable teams in any case, so often the only CSR roles in many companies are for people with more experience of one sort or another.

  2. Join an intermediary organisation

    A CSR membership organisation (Business for Social Responsibility in the US, Business in the Community in the UK, a host of others – do the research), or a consultancy.

    These can be excellent places to be exposed to a range of issues and companies, to really come to understand how the field actually works, and to build useful contacts with existing CSR managers who might at some point help give you a first step into the corporate world.

  3. Join a company to do something unconnected with CSR and create your opportunities internally

    The best CSR teams define their roles as being to influence across the business, and they are looking for keen, skilful advocates wherever they can find them. Join a company with a good CSR reputation, work to become good at what you do, and work in addition to become a CSR champion within your department. Be the one to volunteer for community engagement programmes, be the one who shows an interest in what’s in the CSR report and ask question about it. It’ll make you stand out, and make it all the more likely you’ll get additional credit when an internal opportunity arises.

While you’re preparing to take some practical steps to get your first position, you should be working on making yourself an effective and skilled addition to the CSR operation. After all, we’re looking for people that drive innovation and performance that will help achieve sustainable outcomes. If you’re too lazy to develop yourself and put some sweat into the dream, then you’re not what we need. 

Some ways to do that.

  1. Know your stuff. CSR covers a wide range of issues. Read widely on CSR content and related business, environmental and social content as well.
  2. Know about business. Read some of the business advice books by leading business leaders. Understand what it means to be successful in a private company.
  3. Develop your skills. Communication is particularly important. CSR is about communication more than anything else. Influencing people across the business. Consulting and informing stakeholders. Communicating with a wider audience about what the company is doing and why.
  4. Do the networking. If there are open CSR MeetUp groups, or ‘green drinks’ groups, then join them and become a regular fixture at their meetings. Ask questions if it’s a group that has speakers, and talk to the speakers after the session has finished.
  5. Identify your targets. Research which are the leading companies that have established teams and a solid track record, and perhaps more importantly which are the emerging companies that are earlier on the journey, but committed to making progress. These probably constitute your top targets. So read their CSR reports. What are they proud of achieving? Where are they being less forthcoming, perhaps hinting at areas where they’re struggling more? Which campaign groups are criticising them, and on what grounds? What has the CEO said recently that gives some indication of what priorities are most important to him or her?

As noted above, the world of CSR is tremendously competitive to get into. 

But if you do all the work listed above, and commit yourself to becoming an effective change agent who knows what they’re doing, then you give yourself a lot of advantages that the larger pack – the ones who have shown a bit of interest and hope it’ll just fall into their lap – will not share.

Good luck! And when you get that first foot on the first rung of the ladder, let me know what worked for you! And what you need to take the next step.