How consulting firms can extend their social impact through client engagement

03 October 2023 7 min. read
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Suzanne Zudiker – a global inclusion consultant at GP Strategies – outlines four steps consulting firms can take to align their corporate social responsibility (CSR) and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) functions.

In today's competitive landscape, large corporations are looking to differentiate themselves as the 'good guys' and prioritize becoming known as environmentally and socially conscious. At the same time, early to mid-stage start-ups looking for investment are more likely to receive it if they demonstrate prioritization of the same.

But what constitutes a socially conscious organization? And when and how should a company decide to implement programs and policies that would see them deemed as ethical? The answers to these questions are at the intersection between management consulting and social impact consulting, as the push-pull between the tangible bottom line and fleeting brand perception is no doubt a challenge.

Consultancies can play a vital role in helping to strike the right balance between improving the internal employee experience, developing external community support, adhering to regulatory requirements, and ensuring proper sustainability practices. Acting as external partners to clients, they can also bring a fresh set of eyes to their own diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. Their detachment from client internal politics and biases allows them to observe what other companies are doing, and what is successful, and then leverage their range of experiences to look within.

How consulting firms can extend their social impact through client engagement

In the past, the focus for firms was 100% on delivery of services. But clients are increasingly seeking vendors with a strong DEI and CSR plan themselves. With existing expertise in key performance indicators (KPIs), strategy development, correlation to profit, etc., consulting companies should excel in implementing these tactics and a simple shift in perspective will do the trick as the skills are embedded in the work you already deliver for your clients.

The following are four ways to align a firm's CSR and DEI functions:

1) Integrate values into employee and community engagement

Aligning brand values and culture requires weaving them into every facet of the employee experience – from recruitment to performance management, employee engagement, compensation, and externally through partnerships and supplier selection.

Internally – and, of course, depending on the size of the firm – there is an opportunity to showcase the type of company you are through setting goals to diversify your workforce as well as develop philanthropic relationships within your community or within your sector.

For example, let’s say your consulting focus is manufacturing. It can be cars, textiles, pharmaceuticals, it doesn’t really matter as this approach is universal. But, for this example, let’s take pharmaceuticals. Internally, to increase diversity in your workforce of consultants who specialize in this niche field, you can partner with the University of North Carolina – the number one ranked program in the US – and offer a summer internship or mentorship programs for students in under-represented gender, ethnic, or racial groups in order to widen potential applicant pools in the future.

You can also focus on creating a culture of belonging that would entice top talent through training, policy, and unwritten rules that might, in the past, have had an unbalance of privilege.

Within the community, you can offer scholarships or partner with non-profit organizations that can help drive diverse talent into the field. So, if your clients are top pharma names such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca, you earn goodwill by investing in their industry, you showcase that you – as their vendor – supports supplier diversity, and you show to your employees that your community efforts are making a difference.

In addition, you can involve your team in efforts to support the community where your offices are. If your pillars for CSR are education and health, for example, provide paid volunteer hours for aligned charitable missions, employee matching programs, or external mentorship programs in underprivileged communities.

This approach can be applied in any field or sector with some creative thinking and planning.

2) Ensure there is a strategic plan

The first thing to consider when integrating your DEI and CSR strategies is to assess where your organization is from a cultural perspective, which includes your demographic make-up – and correlate that data with employee sentiment. If your workforce is homogeneous and everyone from that group seems to be very satisfied, that does not mean you have a culture of inclusion – but simply that there is not diversity of thought and experience that might create an internal disconnect. Alternatively, if you do you have diversity in your organization, it gives you an opportunity to get an anonymous and honest perspective of the lived experience of that group without putting any one person on the spot. Either way, when pain points are uncovered, there is an opportunity to focus exactly on where changes should be made.

3) Measure what matters

An essential aspect of DEI and CSR initiatives is measuring and tracking progress regarding culture and overall social impact. Consulting firms have the expertise to develop metrics of success that enable organizations to gauge the impact of their efforts accurately. Regular assessments and progress reports help you communicate to clients what is working, how you are growing as a team, and how those efforts can ultimately impact your ability and efficacy in working with them.

4) Communicate honestly and plan accordingly

Open and honest communication about brand values and culture is crucial. Internally, this involves engaging employees and fostering a sense of ownership over the company's values. Externally, transparent communication builds trust with customers and communities. For example, a company committed to social responsibility could support initiatives that uplift under-represented communities, thereby aligning both with CSR and DEI principles.

By integrating these strategies, consultancies can weave their commitment to social and ethical values into the fabric of their culture and operations. Clients are not looking for performative check-the-box behaviors when it comes to any of their vendors, especially a consulting company working so closely with core aspects of their business. When you demonstrate what your firm's values are and how you are exemplifying them through authentic actions internally and externally, you will start 'doing well, by doing good'.

Integrating DEI and CSR does come with its challenges, however, as they tend to sit in completely different parts of the organization – CSR is often a marketing and communications function, with DEI usually in human resources. In this case, advising on how to collaborate may be the better route. Ensuring alignment and buy-in from the various departments and stakeholders is essential to avoid conflicts and ensure a unified approach. But, most importantly, organizations need leaders and experts who understand both functions to effectively integrate these strategies and drive meaningful change.

As businesses navigate the increasing demand on time and resource allocation, consultancies have the opportunity to step in and suggest operational efficiencies by approaching internal and external corporate ethos as one strategy. By advising on CSR and DEI planning and promoting their co-existence from a job function and operations standpoint, consultancies can help organizations realize their potential as ethical leaders in a rapidly evolving world. By taking a holistic approach, organizations can earn a reputation as being both a great place to work and an attractive option to engage with for employees, customers, and communities alike.