Training the CSR Professional

by Risa Sherman

CSR_trainingWhen I hear about a theme or a trend that catches my attention, I tuck it away and know I will use it at some point. If I hear about it again in a different circle I know it is an idea that is “bubbling” and is something that will likely resurface, and so I start to think about its relevance to my world. The third time this theme crosses into my domain, I know it is an established conversation that many are having. And in the past 10 days or so, at varied intersections, I have been part of conversations about what it actually takes to work in the CSR field. Is it training? DNA? Professional experience? Formal education? I don’t know the definitive answer, but I do know there is more than one path.  Mostly, I am just thrilled the conversation is actually taking place in numerous circles.

Last week I spoke at the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) national conference here in Boston. The panel, Lessons in CSR, was meant to spur discussion among the audience of college professors, many of whom are trying to prepare public relations and business management students to enter the CSR discipline following graduation. Professors report tremendous demand from students who want to do CSR-related work, and an imperative among educators to respond to the changing corporate environment that requires students to be prepared with new tools.

It was great to share the panel with Steve Young, from Wainwright Bank, one of our genuine causenation heroes; Dr. Shuili Du, assistant professor of marketing at Simmons College School of Management; and Susan Nickbarg, a communications practitioner from Washington, DC, who also teaches at Georgetown University.

The panel was great, but the conversations at the reception following were fascinating. Who owns the space? Has it evolved from the public relations school of thought to stakeholder management? Does it belong in the business schools? Is CSR a marketing discipline or a model of organizational behavior? Or do we owe the evolution of CSR to the nonprofit and social activist community which draws from a whole range of origins?  Most importantly, what skills, experiences, and knowledge prepare someone to do the work within the CSR field?

These were the same types of questions being asked last week at the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship webinar which examined new competency models for what it takes to be an effective corporate citizenship leader inside a company. A collaborative effort that included Campbell’s Soup, ARAMARK, Best Buy and other companies was facilitated by the Hay Group to identify and define the attributes, skills and knowledge it takes for corporate citizenship leaders to excel. It is worth taking a look at the Center’s new model.

And just yesterday, the theme of competencies and training came full circle when I was contacted by a young professional in the nonprofit management consulting world who wants to leverage her experience to move into CSR. She asked great questions and we had a rich discussion about my own journey to causenation and how my graduate work at the Newhouse School, and my early professional experiences, shaped the way I practice today.

While causenation will, as a community of thought leaders, will debate and articulate what it takes to be a part of this space, I have to admit it feels like that old story of 10 people blindfolded each touching a different part of an elephant and describing what an elephant looks like. Everyone has their own perspective.  In my daily work at Cause Consulting, I mainly draw on the disciplines of business, marketing, and citizenship, and my experience and knowledge of these disciplines has come to in a variety of ways. Some through formal education, some through nonprofit or activist work, some on the marketing communications agency side of the business, some in government, and some in corporate America. Certainly, my unique experiences shape the way I think and approach my clients’ CSR and business challenges.  The same diversity of experiences holds true for my colleagues.

I believe, there is no one way to train for a career in CSR. Perhaps that is what enables those of us who consult within the space to differentiate ourselves from one another and mold our own worldviews on what success might look like for our clients and for causenation as a whole.

This is a conversation that has been a long time in coming, so I am happy it has arrived in full force. As CSR continues to evolve and take shape, as best practices bubble to the top and companies push the limits and set new benchmarks of what it means to be a good corporate citizen, we must think about how we expand the field and help bring new voices and skills to the table.

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