Benchmark 1

Define focus areas & objectives


Benchmark 1: “Define focus areas & objectives” requires taking a broad view of CSR’s role within the business and setting a baseline upon which to build volunteering infrastructure.

Benchmark 1 Components:

  1. Clear linkage between social focus & core business model
  2. Outsource / partner where you need to
  3. Marketing involvement to ensure mission / brand alignment and USP differentiation
  4. Cross-functional team involved in decision making
  5. Defined & documented social impact strategy


1. Clear linkage between social focus & core business model

Don’t be afraid to speak with equal emphasis about wealth creation and social impact through market-based approaches, says Ashoka‘s Valeria Budinich.


Companies typically promote their discrete CSR-related contributions in isolation of the day-to-day business – playgrounds they’ve built or trees they’ve planted – and, in the process, ignore the vast contribution made by their core business activities (capital, jobs, skills, ideas, taxes).


McKinsey posit that companies that succeed in building a profitable relationship with the external world think differently: they are explicit about how fulfilling their business purpose benefits society. This approach, in contrast to CSR strategies that are separate from the commercial activity of a company (and which are often short-lived), is less vulnerable to cost-cutting or management changes and very often strengthens the firm’s long-term competitiveness in the process.


Indeed, investors Acumen Fund and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation do not see volunteering as a distraction for their portfolio companies. They often find such start-ups are invigorated, not distracted, by employee volunteering, and benefit from a strengthened values-driven culture and brand.


Airbnb, for example, are explicit in leveraging their host community and tech platform (core tenets of their central business model) for social good: whether it is providing free or low-cost accommodation for individuals in times of need through their Open Homes programme, or drawing upon their platform to match hosts with displaced residents and relief workers in disaster situations.


By nature, focusing on key areas of interaction between a company and its environment will mean more concentrated CSR efforts. And companies like Disney and DonorsChoose are comfortable with that. Having acknowledged that previous efforts were “a mile wide but an inch deep”, they changed their focus to only initiatives closely tied to their brand purpose (In Disney’s case, they focus on being a “storyteller at heart”,  whilst DonorsChoose utilise their team’s technical abilities to create apps for schools – one of their core stakeholders).


2. Outsource / partner where you need to

Speaking to Ashoka’s Valeria Budinich, who writes about Scaling up Business Solutions to Social Problems, she asserts that pioneering companies recognize their ignorance. Indeed, Accenture believes that only through partnerships with other organisations can volunteer programmes be optimized. It is through recognising and being comfortable to stick to your internal strengths (and outsource what’s not) that such partnerships can be successful and sustainable.


Whilst some teams have the technical know-how in-house to quickly build their own volunteer tools, such as an employee volunteer hours tracker at Kabbage, others are entirely comfortable outsourcing the operational activities and focusing on what they do best., for example, partner with expert NGOs and non-profits to deliver and create curriculums for their school, whilst teams at the Google mothership focus on utilising their tech & data know-how for solving problems for their beneficiaries.


3. Marketing involvement to ensure mission / brand alignment and USP differentiation

Keeping CSR and volunteerism central to HQ, without the active participation of the big-spending functions such as marketing, will make ambitions impossible to realize.


Of course, effective marketing of social impact can do more than protect company reputation, showcase USP to customers and win over stakeholders, according to Deloitte. It can also be a driving force internally to reinforce social culture, engage employees and tangibly boost volunteering participation rates, as Optimizely would attest (an impressive 85% of their employee’s volunteer). Accenture go so far as to ensure a senior marketing employee has a seat at the table for each local office’s “CSR board”.


4. Cross-functional team involved in decision making

Without cross-functional team input upfront, centralised approaches to CSR and volunteering tend to meander into disagreements about which department is paying and who would get the credit. Further, “on-the-ground” input from managers across a variety of teams, should be required to help ensure strategy is grounded in local context and operational reality.


Major League Baseball (MLB) have a working group that meets every 2-3 weeks to discuss topics, progress, updates & cohesion. The group consists of diversity & inclusion leaders, the comms & marketing teams, operational teams, player representatives and employee resource groups such as LGBT.


McKinsey even suggest that CSR should cease to be a separate function and become part of the skill set of all business leaders as an innovative way to solve problems.


5. Defined & documented social impact strategy

Actually documenting your strategy, whether in the form of a Sustainability Annual Report, a dedicated website or otherwise, forces a structured way of thinking and clarity for both your internal and external stakeholders.


Coca Cola use an Annual Sustainability Report to define their 2020 goals and progress against them over the years. Pearson use theirs to show exactly how they’ve mapped their business goals to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). AMD use their website to showcase precisely how they’ve determined business strategy around each of their social goals.

What each tier does well

Established Company


With an average score of 4.78 out of 5, companies in this tier were very comfortable with outsourcing volunteering operations to third-parties, despite arguably having the largest capacity (vs. other tiers) to build something themselves.


Did tech help?
Use of technology was moderately correlated to outsourcing (0.5 @ 99%CI), with most companies choosing to outsource technical build of volunteering-specific tools, despite having technical expertise in-house (in some instances).



High-growth companies were particularly adept at linking social focus to their core business model (averaging 4.75 out of 5). 


Did tech help?
Given the nature of “setting strategy” technology was not relevant in this instance, although I note a few examples where enterprise communication tools (such as Slack) were utilised to keep cross-functional teams in the loop



SMEs were fairly adept at having cross-functional teams involved in decision making, which was strongly correlated to high benchmark performance (0.78 at 99% CI), perhaps testament to the agile way of working that such companies are used to.


Did tech help?
Tech was not notably a driver in getting cross-functional teams involved: perhaps given the small number of employees at such companies it is easy enough to get together in-person.

Filling the gaps

Toggle through each tier below to explore the weakest areas of performance against this benchmark:


How tech might help

Established companies could take the lead from their smaller peers: by more heavily utilising collaboration tools such as Slack, Microsoft Teams and Facebook for Work between the CSR team and other functions, logistical barriers such as working across different locations shouldn’t be a factor in getting cross-functional teams involved in decision making. Even for London-centric organisations where logistics are less of an issue, such tools help with regular engagement of cross-functional teams.


Tech wasn’t particularly relevant in closing gaps for the High-Growth and SME tiers (beyond utilising data analytics), due to the nature of the strategy setting process.

Case Studies:

Tech as an enabler

Kabbage Logo

Kabbage, a FinTech startup founded in 2009, give their employees paid time off to volunteer as part of their philanthropic programme Kabbage Kares.

Employees aim for (and very often meet) a minimum of 32 hours of volunteering p/year: a target they track in a simple system pulled together by Kabbage’s in-house tech team. The tool tracks the types of non-profits employees work with & number of volunteer hours per employee; KPIs which are reviewed as part of an employee’s annual evaluation. Logo

To best understand how they can contribute, spends a lot of time buried in the latest data analytics & research (both from academics and their own in-house research team) to offer a unique blend of support to non-profits including funding, tools and Google volunteers.

Each year, Google employees contribute 200,000+ volunteer hours – utilising their engineering expertise to accelerate progress.

Their volunteering impact is three-fold: they give social enterprise partners access to Google’s technology for good (such as Pratham Books who were able to rapidly expand their reach utilising Google’s Translate API, or open-source technologies they create), tech expertise (such as access to Google’s AI experts through their AI Impact Challenge, which garners applications online from a global audience), whilst also ensuring Googlers design products in their day job that can support disadvantaged people.

Education-specific best practice

American Express Logo

American Express, with partner The Presidio Institute, developed a curriculum for training talent in the non-profit sector. In order to scale their original face-face program, Leaderoscity was launched in 2015: an online leadership development platform drawing upon Amex’s prowess in developing corporate leaders.

It has proven to be an effective tool for building the leadership and business skills that are critical to the sector’s success and serves as a great example of how corporates can draw upon their core strengths and contribute to curriculum.


Optimizely Logo

Optimizely, an 8-year old start-up helping companies optimize their websites, prioritized social impact right from the start.

Whilst, like most start-ups, they were not in a position to give out grants to the third sector, as a Champion of the Pledge1% initiative Optimizely were more than able to make up for it: utilizing employee time and product, they helped the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund optimize its landing page to raise an additional $1m for earthquake survivors in just 1 week.


Uber Logo

Uber have a clear appreciation of where their core business activities can contribute and where best to outsource. In contributing to the four tenets of their social mission (Mobility, Opportunity, Safety & Efficiency), they partner with organisations who can leverage Uber’s driver community and scalable tech platform to solve community challenges.

For example, Uber provides rides for underserved families to reach Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank in Seattle (helping them gain access to student backpacks filled with school supplies) and to connect refugees to training & income-generating opportunities in partnership with International Rescue Committee.

Next: Read onwards to Benchmark 2 >>

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