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What Makes a (CSR) Professional?

March 18, 2013

Two weeks ago, we took a look at various names that are used in CSR to describe the function. Last week, we looked at the many definitions of CSR. This week, let's take a look at the CSR profession itself.

In 2011, the Corporate Responsibility Officer Association (CROA) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center (BCLC) published a study of the CSR profession, entitled The State of the Corporate Responsibility Profession, with support from IBM. The study was designed "to formulate a snapshot of where the CR field stands today and to provide suggestions about how to advance the field." The research consisted of interviews with CSR practitioners and academics.

Here are the major findings:

  • CSR remains a nascent profession. The field lacks applied research, an accepted body of knowledge, social recognition, a recognized professional society, an ethics code and a professional credential.
  • CSR is not yet fully established as a deliberate career path. People come to the profession through a variety of different career paths.
  • The future of the CSR role looks more like the chief financial officer than the e-commerce officer. Even as CSR eventually becomes more integrated into a company's business operations, there will still be a need for leadership by a small core of CSR professionals much like the typical function of a corporate CFO.
  • A dearth of educational capacity exists, with no clear leaders. There are few CSR specialties in business schools and virtually no PhDs that could teach these programs.
  • Fulfilling CSR's promise requires leadership education. CSR professionals need a strong business foundation integrated into their core curriculum to be successful business leaders.
  • CSR professionals should be willing to take risks. There is a need for a greater level of accountability for both the "good stuff" and the "bad stuff" that happens in companies.
  • Many CSR professionals are ambivalent about the development of their own profession. Many CSR professionals like their jobs, but they are ambivalent about the future of their profession.
  • Some CSR professionals are disturbingly apathetic. They remain unconvinced that it's worth investing time or effort into developing the profession.
  • It will take deliberate, collective action to mature the profession.


The study concludes that the CSR profession is stuck in a "chicken-and-egg conundrum: before employers establish a CSR career path, CSR needs a defined curriculum; before educational institutions invest in a defined curriculum, they need to see a clear demand for CSR professionals." It goes on to say that CSR professionals "need to be more engaged in shaping the future of their profession through deliberate, collective action." One way to contribute is by helping to refine the body of knowledge.

Accordingly, the study sees three distinct next phases of work:

  • Complete the body of knowledge and map the essential tools that CSR professionals need. This analysis would form a basis for a core CSR curriculum that educators could build upon, enable professionals to develop a clear career path, and allow individuals to identify the knowledge and skills they need.
  • Conduct a prevalence study. This study – to understand the degree to which specific knowledge and skills are in use today – was scheduled to be conducted in 2012 (I'm not sure what happened to it).
  • Raise awareness about the field and the profession. A need exists for a professional society that can serve as the field's voice and advocate.

From my point of view as a long-time practitioner in the field, the fact that there is no clear career path is both a possible weakness and a real strength. Having come from a career as an attorney, professor and nonprofit manager, a more formal, credentialed career path could have prevented me from entering the field. Likewise, many of my CSR colleagues – some who are recognized leaders in the field – came from wildly divergent backgrounds with diverse experiences and different points of view. This diversity remains a core strength of the field in my opinion.

I agree with the need for CSR professionals to assume more responsibility for contributing to the knowledge base in the field. A former colleague once told me that I should be spending more time writing and contributing to professional journals and publications. He was right. It took me awhile to figure out the right approach, but hopefully this weekly CSR Now! blog is helping to provide some thought leadership as well as helping to identify and distribute studies and reports that cover some of the major issues and practices in the field.

Finally, I'm not sure of the need for a professional society. We already have a plethora of powerful professional organizations that are vying for my time and attention on behalf of the field: The Conference Board, the Council on Foundations, Business for Social Responsibility, the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, Business Civic Leadership Center, Association of Corporate Contributions Professionals, the Better Business Bureau, Independent Sector, Philanthropy New York, just to name a few.

So, that's my three-part summary of the proliferation of names and definitions and the professional needs of the CSR field. What do you think? Let me know by clicking here. Or, alternatively, follow me on Twitter at @tmcclimonCSRNow and comment there.

P.S. CSR Now! is going on spring break and will return on April 8. Thanks for reading and sharing.


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Welcome to CSR Now!, a weekly blog designed to get at what’s happening in Corporate Social Responsibility today – from the point of view of a corporate practitioner.



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