Agile Insider
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Agile Insider

Can corporate social responsibility be agile?

Going agile can help organizations be more responsive to the needs of the communities they support and make a greater impact on stakeholders.

Board with post-it notes. Agile user story board. Corporate social responsibility.
Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

For the past year, I’ve been part of an agile project management team overseeing a major website overhaul. We use Jira, we have user stories, we hold daily scrums and we work in 3-week sprints. We are a pretty typical agile project that has a framework guiding how we work. I’ve been curious, though, about how agile can be applied to projects apart from technology. I’ve seen several articles on marketing and communications and there are possibilities in manufacturing and supply chain management. But what about the business operation I care about the most, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and all the social and environmental concerns and stakeholder interactions it entails?

The benefits and values of agile

One study shows that enterprise-wide agile transformations improve customer satisfaction, employee engagement and operational performance, which all lead to improved financial performance. To increase agility, companies need to focus on things like shared purpose/vision, empowered teams, rapid decision and learning cycles, dynamic people models and enabling technology.

At first, CSR may seem too unrelated and abstract to suit agile. But the things that agile seeks to improve within the company can only mean positive outcomes as well for the communities and stakeholders organizations work with and the environments they work in in the long run.

Agile has its practices, but it is essentially a set of values. Agile is an idea that highlights adaptiveness and response to change. Going back to the basics of the agile manifesto and principles, they’re heavily weighted toward making software. However, a few general values and principles stand out that organizations can take to heart:

  • value customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • respond to change over following a plan
  • build projects around motivated individuals and trust them
  • continuous attention to excellence and good design
  • reflect on how to become more effective and adjust

How can people working in CSR respond to change and manage uncertainty? Let’s look at three of these points in more depth to see how CSR can adapt.

Value customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Let’s substitute the word “customer” for “stakeholder” and this one starts to make sense to CSR. In an agile approach, we should be viewing stakeholders as collaborators in CSR work. What could this mean in practice? It can mean engaging with community partners throughout a grant from submission to finalization to understand what works best for them and how you can help them along the way. It can look like bringing together employees and community partners the organization’s real needs instead of only a one-off volunteer day. It’s setting out many touchpoints with suppliers and working with them to make critical sustainable changes in the supply chain instead of immediately setting the standard. Taking this approach can help us learn from stakeholders and to adjust course when things need to improve.

Build projects around self-motivated individuals

If you’re lucky, you may have a dedicated CSR department that maybe also includes diversity, equity and inclusion. Or maybe the CSR person is someone sitting in marketing or HR. Perhaps your workplace only has a committee. Whatever the set up, CSR always needs a lot of collaboration and enthusiastic team players. Organizations need to harness the energy of people who want to create and move CSR projects forward, both for those who volunteer and do it as a job. To do this, organizations need a culture of trust and one that supports people in learning and taking risks. There also needs to be in place ways to track and provide transparent communication between individuals. Trust your volunteer champions to manage an event and trust your product developers to create a more sustainable product.

Two people with masks filling brown paper bags on table with food.
Photo by Ismael Paramo on Unsplash

Reflect on how to become more effective and adjust

How did your organization fare in responding to the social upheavals of the past two years? This is not a typical scenario for crisis communications. For many organizations, it likely took weeks for messaging to be approved through the traditional channels and upended communication plans. Would you be able to respond to a grantee’s shift in priorities and funding needs because of something like COVID or a natural disaster? Do you learn lessons from product changes that in the end didn’t turn out to be the best option for sustainability? Companies need to learn how to iterate on all CSR initiatives, not only at annual reporting time, but throughout the year. Processes should be set up to allow for quick pivots through both technology that offers data and analytics and in the ways people work together. Make things simple and pared down to get the most efficient turnaround on learning and communication.

The bottom line

All of the suggestions made above sound ideal and they will be until organizations start committing to agile values and principles. Right now, my team is the only agile one in the organization — the testing ground for more to come if all goes well. CSR requires the buy-in from many departments, so a lot of change management needs to happen. The outcomes, though, will be worth it. CSR is more important than ever and if organizations want to be at the cutting edge, they’ll need to put trust in their teams, be able to make informed and quick decisions and really listen to and adapt for their stakeholders if they want to make the most impact.



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Amy Coulterman

Amy Coulterman


Attempting to link a non-profit mindset to the corporate world. Corporate social responsibility | social impact | Toronto, Canada |