Why start a CSR program?

There are actually far more reasons why you shouldn't start a CSR program than why you should. If your program is ad-hoc, reactive, non-strategic, underdeveloped, under-resourced or inauthentic, you're wasting your time. In fact, a 2008 paper by Brammer & Millington found that firms with top 10% CSR programs outperformed everyone over the long term, but that middle 20% CSR programs underperformed everyone else over short, middle and long terms. In other words, it makes more financial sense to do no CSR at all than to take it only half way. 

But why should you start a strategic, well-thought-out CSR program? The specific benefits to your business.  


Various studies have found that positive social performance can increase the overall market and accounting value of a firm.

  • In NBER Working Paper No. 17950, Eccles, Ioannou & Serafeim (2014) found that companies with good social performance “significantly outperform their counterparts over the long-term, both in terms of stock market and accounting performance.” Specifically, they found that the high sustainability group outperformed the low sustainability group by 4.8% annually. 
  • Other researchers (Park & Moon, 2011) have taken large stock performance data sets, filtered them through investor screening services, like the MCSI ESG screen, and have shown that the stocks of companies in the top social performance quantile “outperform those of companies in the bottom quantile by as much as 6.24% annually."
  • In a research note for the European Centre for Corporate Engagement, Derwall & Verwijmeren (2006) find that firms with better governance scores enjoy lower cost of equity capital (by up to 1%).
  • A Journal of Banking & Finance article investigated the impact of CSR on the cost of bank loans. (Goss & Roberts, 2011). They found that low CSR performers face higher loan costs (7 to 18 bp), while high CSR performers split into two groups. In financially strong companies, high CSR performance was correlated with lower loan costs, but in financially weak companies, high CSR performance was correlated with higher costs.


The effect of strategic CSR on marketing and sales is both well-documented and well-understood, but the magnitude of some of the effects can still be surprising.

Cone Communications administers a bi-annual survey of customer perceptions about social responsibility. The following points are from their 2017 report.

  • 89% of customers say that they would switch to a brand associated with a good cause, all else equal.
  • 81% of customers say that they would tell friends and family about a company’s CSR efforts.

Since what consumers say they will do is often different from what they actually do, other researchers have set up experiments to test actual consumer behavior.

  • In an MIT working paper,  Hainmueller & Hiscox (2012) found that “labels with information about fair labor standards had a substantial positive effect on sales among a segment of shoppers even in outlet stores where customers are predominantly concerned with prices. The labels increased sales of a more expensive women's item by 14%.”
  • More specifically, a meta-analysis of 83 research papers (Tully & Winer, 2014) found that 60% of respondents are willing to pay a positive premium on socially responsible products, and that the mean premium is 16.8%.
  • A 2010 study by Lev, Petrovits & Radhakrishnan found that growth in corporate philanthropy is a leading indicator for sales growth. The mechanism here appears to be customer satisfaction, showing the following causation: corporate philanthropy generates customer satisfaction, which in turn generates sales growth. Sample averages for that study implied that “a $500,000 increase in charitable contributions result[ed] in an estimated $3 million increase in sales.”


Once again, the Cone Communications study provides some good data.

  • 86% of customers expect a company to do more than make a profit.
  • 92% of customers have a more positive image of a company that supports social issues.

And, especially for larger firms, risk mitigation is a useful effect of CSR.


Are you interested in setting up a corporate social responsibility program and want to make sure you're doing it the most affordable and effective way? Or are your existing programs stuck in that middle 20% range, and generating more costs than benefits? Please contact us for a free consultation.


How do you start an effective CSR program?
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What is effective CSR?
What are the strategic drivers of effective CSR?
What are the components of a CSR program?
How do you determine what CSR resonates with your stakeholders?