Planning for a Career in Corporate Responsibility: Some Tips for Students & Recent Grads

As an “emerging practitioner” in philanthropy and corporate responsibility, I really believe the System can be harnessed to heal the world – not just exploit it. Apparently, I’m not alone. Report after report indicates that Millennials have a deep hunger to weave positive social and environmental impact into our professional craft. In turn, companies that satisfy this craving are expected to win more and more battles in the talent wars waged across industries. I’ve had a few friends and associates (grads and undergrads) reach out to me about the particulars of my career choice. While I can only really speak to the U.S. experience (and more specifically, Silicon Valley), I thought it might be helpful to put my thoughts in writing. I talk about the history of the field and its current landscape. I then share some action items for kick-starting your career as a corporate responsibility practitioner. If you’re in a hurry, skip down to the last section: “How do I build a career in CR?”

“What is Corporate Responsibility (CR)?”

Corporate Responsibility is synonymous with words like corporate conscience and corporate citizenship, to name a few. Basically, it’s the corporate practice of securing the public good (access to education, clean environment, civil rights, good infrastructure, financial inclusion, etc.) in order to secure the continued success of the business. A corporate responsibility professional (or, practitioner) is someone who is employed by the business to oversee or assist these efforts.

Not everyone is on board, and that’s okay.

Ironically, the practice of corporate responsibility in the U.S. was actually considered irresponsible and even illegal until around the 1930’s, when the IRS began making provisions for it in the form of corporate giving. Companies were not expected to act in the interest of any other stakeholders except for their shareholders, and companies definitely weren't expected to donate percentages of profits that belonged to investors. It was a company’s responsibility to pay the dividends, and the philanthropic “burden” was placed on the capitalist to share the wealth, should they choose to. This argument was crystalized in the 1970s by the popular economist Milton Friedman. Some may still agree with this ideology and that's something to keep in mind as you head out to save the world.

Today, the rise of standardized reporting initiatives and more solid regulations defining what “responsible activity” is for companies mark some pretty major re-alignments of old and new theories (India’s Companies Bill of 2012 and the more recent Conference of the Parties 21 are great examples). Professor George Serafeim does a masterful job outlining the rationale behind integrated reporting (interweaving financial and sustainability information to tell more complete stories). Personally, I think companies will soon factor CR efforts as a normal cost of doing business. Regulation and standardization in reporting, coupled with naturally growing interest among consumers, employees and investors, will be driving forces behind the development of CR as a formal profession.

“What does a career in CR look like?”

Today’s CR practitioners can manage programs that fall in a wide range of fields. From employee matched giving, to civic tech partnerships with cities, to company-wide diversity and inclusion initiatives, to supply chain monitoring and regulation -- what started (in the U.S. at least) as traditional corporate giving, has certainly expanded to become more than simply “cutting checks.” Though, as someone who works in the grantmaking world, I can tell you there’s nothing simple about giving away institutional assets – something else to keep in mind: you need really good diplomacy skills.

As far as career advancement is concerned, things are a little tight at the moment.

Some companies might house their CR team of one or five people within the human resources, marketing or legal departments. Some programs may be well established and actually be located in a unique department with a vice president. Other companies may have a chief impact or sustainability officer championing the work from the boardroom to the assembly line. This is less common, but it’s becoming a thing – Nike and Dow Chemical are good examples of this structure.

The jobs are still in-the-making.

There are lots of companies that, including startups, want to integrate social impact into their business but have yet to get it together. They either don’t know where to begin, or they’re struggling to justify allocation of resources to “nonessential” practices. Again, with continued regulation redefining “essential,” this may change. Though counterintuitive, well-defined standards may actually unburden impact-driven entrepreneurs and executives by allowing them to leverage the law to justify social and environmental investments.

Whether serving in a major corporation, or managing the impact initiatives of a small startup, shared value is the name of the game. You’ll be hired to find answers to the big question: “What can we do to reach our environmental, social or governance goals in order to boost company success?”

“How do I build a career in CR?”

Jan Masaoka, CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits and former executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, wrote a witty and well-articulated post about the ins and outs of securing a grantmaking position at a foundation. I think a lot of her points could be used to explain the Game of Thrones landscape for CR jobs – saying it’s “competitive” is a severe understatement. One of her points talks about starting at the organization in one role, and then transferring over to the grantmaking team once the opportunity arises. That’s what I did, so I guess it was good advice. Here are some other ideas:

Build your brand to tell a compelling story.

If you really are a good fit for the field, then you’ve most likely been doing things that align with the work -- especially if you've served in the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, the military, a church mission or some other type of long-term service engagement; it’s not essential, but it's a common thing I’m seeing among practitioners. You may also possess skills that CR teams rely on to scale the impact of their programs. Some examples:

● Community engagement and campaign management ● Training, teaching, volunteer management ● Evaluation research and report writing ● Data science or financial analysis 

To check for skill alignment, run job searches using these keywords:

● Community affairs/relations ● Community impact ● Corporate citizenship ● Corporate giving/philanthropy ● Corporate (social) responsibility ● Sustainability

Identify the roles you like. Read the job descriptions and look for common line items. If you have skills or experience that match those line items, place them on your LinkedIn profile and in your resume.

Build your network of support and guidance.

You’re going to need really good advocates and mentors. CR networks tend to be very tight-knit communities. This makes the process feel a bit like a round of musical chairs. When a new position opens at a company, it gets filled by a practitioner from another company, whose old position gets filled by another practitioner, and so on. There’s no established pipeline for the field. To get your name in the circuit for a job opening, you'll want to be referred by another CR leader.

1. Use tools like LinkedIn to locate CR professionals at companies you admire.

2. Tap mutual connections or reach out to them directly for informational interviews. Some will ignore you, others will respond.

3. In your interviews, ask for simple homework assignments that will help you move forward in your development.

4. Report back once you’ve completed the assignment and be sure to talk about the value it brought. Some won’t care, others will.

5. Those that care about your experience will become your advocates and mentors.

Like any career blog post, this thing is riddled with survivorship bias. The best things for you to do are network like crazy and keep your enthusiasm for the craft. I think that's the key to building a career in any field, but I'm still building one myself.

Please feel free to reach out to me to brainstorm ideas or connect with a particular CR leader:

In Service,  Sean Rico Fisher, CNP