Have you ever felt that your organisation could give to charitable causes in a more impactful way?
We chat about the role of corporate social responsibility and how it impacts employee engagement and workplace culture.
Our guests have developed a platform to give global workplaces the power to connect their people through purpose, to make a culture of community and to make giving a central part of the employee experience.
Crowned by the World Economic Forum in 2018 as the New Global Champion in Innovation, this platform stands out because its software has been designed for both employees and program administrators – making it easier to make a difference.
We chat with co-founders of Catalyser, Angel Kwan and Aivee Robinson on the opportunities and challenges of corporate social responsibility.
With impressive backgrounds in law, tech, education and not-for-profit, these co-founders started Catalyser, a social enterprise based in Australia, to increase workplace giving by creating a digital platform for organisations and their staff to engage and impact charitable partners.
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YouTube Channel: HR Think Tank
00:00:00 – Intro
00:01:34 – The History of CSR and its Evolution
00:02:51 – The Different Types of CSR Activities & Initiatives
00:03:57 – Variations of Success & Engagement in CSR Programs
00:08:01 – The Key Benefits of Having a CSR Program
00:10:40 – The Key Challenges of Implementing & Maintaining CSR Programs
00:12:38 – CSR Impact on Company Brand & Performance
00:14:54 – How to Know if You’ve Selected the Right Charity Partner for You
00:18:53 – How Charity Partners Pick the Right Corporate Partners
00:21:02 – How Catalyser Works
00:22:08 – Good Examples of CSR Programs
00:23:45 – How Catalyser Was Created
00:25:39 – The Future of CSR
00:30:32 – The Future of Catalyser
00:32:59 – Fast Five Questions
00:37:09 – Outro
Q: Can you tell us more about the history of corporate social responsibility and how it has evolved over the last few decades?
Aivee Robinson (AR): Corporate social responsibility covers a large area of topics, but essentially it’s about who a company is, how it does business, and the degree of responsibility they have to everyone and everything it impacts – including customers, employees, shareholders, local communities and the environment.
In terms of its history, corporate social responsibility has a long history, but some of its biggest moments span back to the important role that businesses played in supporting communities after the war. After something like that happens globally, corporates, businesses, and employers played a big role.
Since then, however, the model around corporate social responsibility has continued evolving and focuses on how companies and brands interplay with the issues that are happening today.
For example, how are companies responding to climate change? How are they helping to progress indigenous reconciliation? How are their internal diversity and inclusion policies responding to social movements right now, like Me Too or Black Lives Matter?
Q: What are the different types of corporate social responsibility activities or initiatives that organisations can roll out?
AR: The practise of corporate social responsibility (CSR) reflects a wide spectrum of different activities, but it’s usually dependent on things like how long your business has been practising CSR, how embedded CSR is in your company’s DNA, budgetary requirements and demand from customers and employees.
But CSR can include many different things such as employee giving activities like volunteering, workplace giving and fundraising. We see a lot of disaster relief, particularly at the moment, corporate matching, pro bono, and in-kind giving.
These are all activities which the Catalyser platform manages for our clients.
CSR as a broader umbrella can also encompass things like business and human rights and sustainability initiatives. We’re seeing a lot of that at the moment and even cause-related marketing.
Q: How do corporate social responsibility programs vary depending on their approach? For example, the partnership approach with the charity partners versus employee giving programs; or organisation driven initiatives versus employee-driven initiatives. How does that vary in terms of success and engagement for employees?
AR: Every company has a different understanding of CSR, and that understanding is constantly changing as they get more experience.
So, in terms of partnership approaches and employee giving programs, it’s not so much one or the other; they’re just different approaches. An example of a long-term partnership approach is something where it’s mutually beneficial: the business has made a long-term commitment to a charity and the social change that they’re trying to move the needle on.
And, on the other hand, the charity has a deep understanding of the business value that their partner needs to see from the engagement. Because essentially, the business wants to see some outcome from the relationship – they’re getting involved just from the goodness of their heart.
The outcome could be employee engagement, brand development or certifications like B Corp.
Let’s take Woolworths and OzHarvest as an example. Now, we often see these two brands next to each other on trucks and at the store. They’re very aligned, and everyone wins in the partnership: the OzHarvest programs are supplied with food, Woolworths minimises wastage, and every customer feels good about shopping at a store that cares.
So you can see how a long-term partnership aligned with the business and the brand can have huge outcomes for a social cause or charity.
Having said that, however, sometimes these big national partnerships can fail to engage a key stakeholder group in the business: the employees. An employee at Woolworths might know that they have a great partnership with OzHarvest but don’t necessarily have access to opportunities to engage with the partnership.
So, that’s where employee giving programs come in – to help employees get involved.
Organisations that have successful CSR programs generally have a combination of partnership approaches and employee giving programs. It’s the same with organisation-driven incentives and employee-driven incentives – it’s not necessarily one versus the other.
In Catalyser’s experience, some of the most impactful programs have a bit from column A and a bit from column B.
So, an organisation’s CSR program must have top-down, organisation-driven strategic initiatives to align with the business mission. At the same time, the voices and opinions of individual employees also need to be welcomed and heard.
Employee experience is not about what the company says their culture is, but what the employee feels the culture is.
Q: What are some of the key benefits of organisations having a CSR program, and what challenges do they face implementing and maintaining one?
Angela Kwan (AK): CSR programs are an investment, and they have to be assessed and implemented strategically to maximise the benefits. That means the company and the company leaders have to have the right mindset at a strategic level.
For the company overall, the concept of a CSR program should be valued not as a cost centre but as something that can drive tangible business benefit and is therefore aligned with the overall commercial strategies of the company.
In terms of benefits, there are some obvious benefits, such as brand building and brand equity. Various studies show that consumers would actually pay more to buy from a good company or company that has a great reputation.
Regarding other kinds of tangible commercial benefits, one really interesting development in CSR is how it affects fundraising and investor mindsets. A lot of investors are actually factoring in whether their investee companies have CSR programs. For example, fund managers often ask companies in their portfolios to report and show what they’re doing in CSR.
We also see that for a lot of big projects or even government tenders, suppliers are being evaluated on the CSR programs. So it’s not just about having a program but having that accountability in that reporting.
The final significant benefit that Aivee alluded to was how a CSR program integrated with business processes, and culture could have huge benefits to growing employee experience.
We have found that there’s a tremendous sense of pride, inclusiveness, and purpose that leads to a more productive and engaged workforce – which can help with attracting and retaining top talent. For example, many studies show that companies connected with CSR are actually influencing the recruitment decisions of the younger workforce.
One of the key challenges we see is shifting that mindset that many corporate companies don’t feel like it’s their place to voice opinions about social or community issues.
Now what’s interesting is we expect our leaders to be authentic, empathetic and engaged with topical issues. An annual survey conducted by Edelman, the Edelman Trust survey, showed that 76% of employees actually want CEOs and their leaders to show more leadership and engagement on social causes that lead to positive social change.
So, I think one of the challenges, firstly, is to erase the misconception that corporate businesses have no place in social debates and social issues.
From a practical implementation side, CSR programs need to be properly resourced, and therefore there needs to be some kind of commercial investment in terms of resources, budget, personnel and strategic focus for CSR programs to be viable.
That requires time, consistent monitoring and also engagement – you don’t just set up a program once and then it’s on autopilot. CSR programs are long term investments that have to evolve and need constant nurturing and monitoring.
Q: As a business owner or an executive, selecting the right charity partners is quite important, particularly if you've got a big focus on CSR. So, how should charity partners be evaluated? How do you know that you've selected the right partner for you?
For companies wading into the CSR space for the first time, it can be paralysing to choose where you want to start and who you want to support, regardless of what market you’re in.
Catalyser has customers around the world. We always recommend that they first go to the charity regulator if there is one in their space and ensure that anyone you’re considering is verified and has all of the right certifications in terms of that regulatory environment.
So that’s the first thing you want to do. Then I think it’s really about understanding what cause is going to resonate with your business.
We’ve seen many, many different approaches to CSR across our client base and across companies that we’ve worked with, and many have come to us saying, “We have so many charity partners. We don’t know how to group them. We don’t know how to report on them. We can’t tell a sensible story about the impact that we’re making because we have this diverse, very disparate group of charity partners.”
So, they’ve often asked us to help them distil that down and make that more strategic so that the cause areas they’re involved with can be long-term. Even though they might switch out the individual charity partners underneath those cause areas, they still align cause areas with their business mission.
We ask our clients to identify three to five of their national partners and establish whether they reflect the values that are important to their employees. Then we ask if there are any local causes or community organisations that are being driven by employee interests.
It’s really important to harness the passion that the employees are bringing to the table because they’re the ones who want to get engaged. We have seen that having big strategic charity partners and the employee suggested charity partners.
Regarding how to choose them, you can always come to a team like Catalyser with the expertise to help you do that. There are also other great consultants that can support. I think talking to peers is also very important. Within the CSR professional space, there’s a lot of peer engagement for people in similar roles across different businesses to share best practices and to share experiences.
And then it’s extremely important to speak to the charities themselves. I come from the charity sector myself, and I think it’s a really important thing that many corporates might forget to do in terms of their selection process.
They need to get to know those charities and let them explain their work, impact, models, and how they can work with different corporates. There’s no one better to explain that than the charities themselves. That’s the start of a very important aspect, which is the relationship building between the charity and the corporate directly.
Q: How do charity partners choose the right corporate partners? Is there an imbalance in terms of the power dynamic? How would you help charity partners choose the right corporate partners, and can they say no?
Selecting which corporate partners they want to work with is similarly strategic for the charity organisations.
Firstly, they have to align with the business’s brand and values. For example, a particular cause or charity might have entire industries that wouldn’t be appropriate for them to align with. They might have entire areas of the corporate world that are just not going to support what they’re doing.
Similarly, it’s really important that we understand the competitive landscape when it comes to charities getting the attention of corporations. It can be really difficult for particularly smaller or newer charities to get time to meet and speak with corporate partners.
Part of the design of Catalyser’s software is to try and democratise that access into the corporate world.
So, Catalyser’s software has been designed so that we’re giving all charities, regardless of their size or their age, the same amount of real estate and access into our corporate partners as the large established household name charities – it was about enabling charities that perhaps don’t have big corporate partnerships teams or don’t have big marketing teams.
Q: For any charity partner who wants to get on Catalyser, is it as simple as hopping on your website, reading the information and then applying to be part of Catalyser? How does that work?
We’re working with charities around the world – our clients are in 15 countries around the world. So charities on our platform are geographically dispersed, and yes, it’s as easy as that.
So they hop on to catalyser.com. There’s a section for charities, and they can read a bit of information. There’s a couple of FAQ’s, but they can get in touch with us directly, and then a member of the team will arrange to meet.
Our goal is to understand what it is that they’re doing that’s different. We want to get to the heart of what the problem is that they’re trying to solve so that when we work with our corporates and help them respond to needs, we can make specific recommendations, whether it might be a small charity, a large charity or an overseas charity.
Q: Aivee previously talked about a great example of a CSR partnership, and that was in Woolies and OzHarvest. Angela, I wonder if you could share any other examples of really good CSR programs that people can look up.
AK: Many of our professional service firms, be it lawyers or accounting firms, including some of Catalyser’s clients, have these great skilled volunteering programs. For example, we’ve got clients, law firms, that second their staff for extended periods, be it six months or a whole year, in a community legal centre where they are using those legal skills as part of the team of their charity partner.
Another example would be having clients team up with a charity on a project basis. For instance, consultants go in and help charities look at their tech services or their tech operations. So companies or even leaders within companies join boards of charities, becoming mentors to leaders within charities.
I think professional services organisations have great examples of these kinds of skilled-based volunteering, long-term initiatives.
Q: So, talking about great partnerships, you both have very unique backgrounds. Can you give us some insight into how you guys got to know each other and how you ended up co-founding Catalyser together?
AR: Angela and I have actually known each other since we were very young, so since we’re in primary school, and Catalyser has been a journey that we’ve been on for about five years now.
At some point, our professional careers really diverted. Angela went off to Harvard, practised law across Asia, and had a great career with many big corporates. I went in a different direction, went into social work, and worked for different not-for-profits and charities in the UN, around Asia, and around the Pacific.
But, I think what is common to both of us was that we have always built our careers with this social lens, which is we’ve always wanted to do things on the understanding that the end goal wasn’t the job itself.
We wanted to be part of something bigger – something that contributed to the change in the world, and that has really come to life through the Catalyser adventure.
Q: It's just been great talking to you both about it and then seeing the passion that you have for your own organisation but also the impact that you can have for all these other organisations, not only in Australia but around the world. So thanks for sharing that story. I want to talk about the future of CSR now. So Aivee, how is it changing? How is it evolving? How are charity partners affected during economic downturns or right now while the pandemic is still raging?
CSR is a fast-moving space, and companies are increasingly being judged on their decisions in this space and their performance when it comes to CSR.
So how do they treat their employees? What’s their stance on social issues? And, as Angela mentioned earlier, what are the ethics of their supply chain? So CSR has become an essential part of the business.
What we’re seeing is that companies are moving up the CSR spectrum with much more sophisticated programs that are holistic – they include a wide range of different activities. So, once upon a time, they used to just offer one type of activity such as workplace giving, for example. But we do not see that very much anymore.
We’re seeing so many companies starting to offer not just workplace giving but also volunteering, pro bono projects, sustainability pledges and different ways for their employees to get involved across the spectrum.
This diversity of activities provides something for everyone, and that is what’s driving higher engagement. If you’re only offering one thing, it’s not going to fit everybody’s idea of how they want to help or how they want to give back.
So we’re seeing a lot more successful and impactful programs bringing in different elements of ways to get involved.
Catalyser currently offers our clients a menu of ten different giving modules. That’s ten different ways that you can offer your employees opportunities to get involved, and we’re continuously adding to that menu to evolve to respond to the evolving needs of our clients.
What we can see is corporate organisations are thinking of new ways to engage their people. They don’t want to keep it the same. They want to just keep mixing it up, and they want to be on the front foot of innovation. That’s affecting charities as well because they also need to evolve in terms of keeping up with partnerships.
It can be challenging for small grassroots organisations that don’t have many resources, where every cent is going to their program delivery. Because the charities have to increasingly improve their tech enablement and develop innovative opportunities to connect with employees.
We also see different trends that charities need to respond to. So on the corporate side and the employee side, donors want a feedback loop – they want to know that their $5, their $100 or their two hours of volunteering contributed to something.
But having said that, they also have short attention spans – so they want short, snappy videos or little text messages. They don’t want to see pages and pages of direct mail that we used to get from charity partners.
Look, charities have an ever-increasing choice of tech partners to work with. We see that because we see so many charities coming to Catalyser because of certain things that we do, and some of those include the fact that we don’t charge charities any fees and we don’t take a percentage of their donations. Yet, at the same time, we give them visibility. We help give them access to some of the biggest, most active corporates in the CSR space.
There are so many benefits, but charities also need the capability and capacity to assess who to work with. When all your staff are out at the coalface working with communities, it’s very hard for these kinds of corporate functions.
So look, it’s a big changing space. We see a lot of challenges, both on the corporate side and the charity side. But organisations like Catalyser are here to try and support both sides of the partnership.
Q: So we know what Catalyser does and the great work that you're both doing, you and your team. What's on the cards for Catalyser in the future? Can you give us some insights into your roadmap or ambitions for the future?
We’ve started in Australia, but I guess our ambition has always been to be a global company. The CSR movement is a global movement. Australia and Australian companies are at the forefront of a lot of these initiatives. I would say particularly in areas like diversity and inclusion, indigenous reconciliation and even sustainability.
But our vision was really to grow and support other corporates around the world. The vision of Catalyser is to grow our footprint and to be able to scale and support more companies and more charities around the world.
This year was a big milestone for us in terms of Catalyser’s impact. We reached $15 million in impact through Catalyser regarding donations and volunteering talent facilitated through the platform. But we want 10X that in the next few years and be able to spread this message and facilitate more impact and engagement beyond Australia.
Angela’s covered a lot, but I think for us, it’s just about continuing to grow the value that we offer to our businesses. So as we mentioned, CSR programs are constantly evolving, and they’re maturing and becoming more and more sophisticated each month.
So in terms of our product roadmap and our services, we want to continue to evolve with our customers and take them on that journey. Wherever they’ve joined us, we want to help them grow their product, deepen the impact that they’re creating, and continue to give their employees a richer experience.
- What was your first job?
- AK: I was actually an office assistant for a Japanese credit card company. A lot of that involved having to stuff hundreds of envelopes with the merchant invoices every month. So it was a mix of origami and trying to avoid paper cuts.
- AR: Equally as glamorous, I was at KFC selling chicken after school. I did that job for three years.
- What’s something interesting that is not on your CV?
- AK: I actually represented Hong Kong in women’s cricket. So I’m a big cricket fan.
- AR: I’m actually a qualified masseuse. So I worked as a remedial massage therapist to supplement my income when I was a social worker.
- What advice would you give your eighteen-year-old self?
- AK: I would tell 18-year-old Angela to invest in networks and build relationships and the importance of finding and getting advice from mentors.
- AR: For me, I would tell my 18-year-old self, “Guess what? You don’t need to figure out what you want to do when you grow up because it will change in ways that you can’t imagine. So all you need to do is be open to that.”
- What book is a must-read, or what movie is a must-watch?
- AK: A recent book that I read that I would highly recommend is Behind the Cloud by Marc Benioff. It’s the story of the founder of Salesforce. It’s a great book about how to build a game-changing technology business. Marc Benioff had a real game-changer approach to CSR. So I would recommend it for both of those reasons.
- AR: I would love to recommend Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I guarantee this book will change the way you see the world. After reading this, it’s impossible not to live your life with a social lens and want to be part of the change. It is just impossible. So it’s a great book. I highly recommend it.
- What’s a job for the future that doesn’t exist today?
- AK: So right now, I know many of us are stuck and had holidays cancelled. So I think a job for the future would be a space travel agent. One way to avoid the COVID registrations is if we all start doing intergalactic travel.
- AR: I like the idea that we’re probably going to need some social media archivists. So people who get paid to collect and preserve the Instagram posts and tweets are deemed to have a long-term value.