Strategy, Leadership & Development

How To Create Value With A Shoestring CSR Budget

5 months ago


How To Create Value With A Shoestring CSR Budget

Money, money, money.

Everything seems to revolve around it these days.

With it, the world is your oyster. Without it, you’re a nobody.

In organisations, money is even more precious, and rightly so. It must be spent wisely and even then there needs to be a return on investment to make it sustainable. Let’s face it, firms won’t spend millions on an ad campaign that they think will only generate a few thousand in additional sales.

Fortunately for marketing departments, they can quite easily measure the financial ‘success’ of each campaign, hence why they often get given pretty much a blank check for their annual budget.

The CSR Budget

When it comes to CSR though, departments are nowhere near as lucky.

As I’ve often pointed out, CSR can certainly financially benefit a company, but it’s pretty difficult to track.

How do you know when sales have specifically come from a bolstered corporate reputation?

How do you quantify the value of the top talent that CSR attracts?

It’s because of this that CSR managers often find themselves ‘running on empty’ so to speak. It’s all well and good to have grand ambitions for nationwide initiatives but without a large CSR budget, it’ll never get off the ground.

However, that’s not to say that a large CSR budget is the be all and end all. If you’re not blessed with stacks of cash at your disposal, there are still a couple of easy things you can do.

1. Be Innovative!

Working With Small CSR Budget | Jason Wicks

Believe it or not, but sometimes a large CSR budget can be a problem. It can sometimes make the company a bit lazy, opting to throw money at endless projects without necessarily being strategic and creating value in return.

In a weird way, having to be frugal can sometimes be a good thing, as it forces you to think outside the box a little bit.

If money isn’t free flowing, why not think about the resources you do have? What about staff volunteering? Sure, the company technically lose a day of productivity, but I don’t think it’s too naive to assume that will be offset in the long run by higher levels of engagement and wellbeing. On several occasions I’ve organised events where staff have given up a couple of hours to run employability workshops with disadvantaged children, and they’ve been enormously successful.

Time is just as valuable as money if you use it properly.

Secondly, what about the products you’re selling? How can you use them to be socially responsible?

When I worked for a large automotive company, we used to loan vehicles out to charities who needed them. It barely cost us anything in the grand scheme of things, but it made a monumental difference to them.

2. Think Local

As you’ve no doubt noticed, a restricted CSR budget does sort of rule out huge nationwide projects.

But, that’s not an excuse to do nothing.

In my view, CSR is about companies doing what they can with the resources at their disposal. Every company can always do more, but it’s as much about intention as it is output.

I also think that CSR works best when it’s a combination of global/national initiatives and local ones. Yes, the larger projects might make the headlines, but if you really care about CSR, it’s the smaller scale activities that arguably matter most. After all, if you’ve got a huge factory or office somewhere, it’s the local residents that are the most affected by it.

A small CSR budget often doesn’t rule out small, local activities, and while ideally they should work in conjunction with larger projects, they’re certainly better than doing nothing at all.

3. Collaborate & Share Costs

Working With Small CSR Budget | Jason Wicks

If there’s one thing a CSR team needs to be good at, it’s influencing other business functions and areas.

Instead of funding an elaborate CSR communications plan for example, why not work closely with marketing and social media and try and collaborate?

If you can convince them that you have a message that’s worth sharing, their budget can often accommodate it.

By nature, CSR overlaps with other business areas. Therefore having a low CSR budget doesn’t always restrict you as much as you think. Don’t get me wrong, it makes it pretty difficult, but not impossible.

By working together with other business areas, you can create genuine social or environmental value without much cost at all. On top of that, you’ll almost serendipitously integrate CSR into your business, which, if you’ve read my other posts, is very important.

In a slightly cynical but pragmatic way, CSR is a practice of spending other department’s money, and if you become good at that, there’s not much of a limit in terms of what you can achieve.

Related: The simple venn diagram that explains effective CSR.

The Catch

As I like to think I’ve highlighted, a small CSR budget doesn’t completely rule out CSR in general, it just makes it tricky.

However, it’s necessary to mention that in the long run, a shoestring budget can become pretty problematic.

Not necessarily because you can’t be socially responsible at all, but because you can’t be socially responsible enough.

With CSR pretty much a mainstream concept now, we’re very much entering the point of it being a genuine competition. When consumers start to see more and more companies adopt CSR, the benchmark continues to rise. A firm could actually be pretty socially responsible, but if their competitors are more socially responsible then they won’t benefit much at all.

It’s here where a small CSR budget could be a problem. If expectations do continue to rise, firms that don’t sufficiently fund CSR might be left behind.


That being said, I do think there is an important lesson here.

In a world where money seems to dictate everything, taking a step back can actually be really useful. Without a super large CSR budget, you may find yourself being naturally more collaborative, more innovative, and engage more with the local community. None of these are bad things. In fact, they’re actually crucial.

What’s more, a small budget doesn’t give you an excuse to do nothing. It gives you a challenge to make the best out of what you have.

Yes, in the long run a larger budget will likely be needed to stay competitive, but at that point, the business case will naturally be stronger. In addition, if smaller, inexpensive projects deliver good value and engagement, then they can effectively be your business case for more funds.

Either way, work smart with what you’ve got, and ‘success’ is just as achievable.

Hi! I’m an author and blogger within the fields of social impact and responsible business. I believe that businesses can be a force for good in the world, and this website contains my thoughts on how that can work.

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