The Big Picture: Careers in Corporate Impact

As Peter Parker’s uncle once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And who has more power than corporations? The sheer scope and scale of corporations make their existence inseparable from the well-being of the environment and society at large.

  • Of the world’s 100 largest entities by annual revenue, only 29 are countries – the rest are corporations.1
  • Even a Patagonia jacket made of 60% recycled material requires 135 liters of water,enough to meet the daily needs of 45 people. Its journey from its origin to the warehouse generates nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide and leaves behind two-thirds its weight in waste.2

Corporate impact refers not only to what a company’s activities do to the bottom line, but to people and the planet, too. Also known as corporate citizenship, corporate social responsibility (CSR), or sustainability, this field goes beyond government compliance and philanthropy. It’s about integrating social and environmental considerations into all aspects of business operations, as well as into relationships with stakeholders such as employees, suppliers, consumers, and local communities.

The lowdown

What can you expect if you decide to make a corporate impact?

Think outside the box

The reality is that there are a limited number of corporate jobs with “sustainability” or “citizenship” in the job title. The good news is there are opportunities to make an impact from all roles within a company, not just from the vantage point of a dedicated department. Be open to making change from a more functional role.

It’s all about the Benjamins, baby

In the corporate world, business decisions almost always come down to dollars and cents. Knowing how to make a clear business case for the kind of social and environmental impact you want to have is key to getting things accomplished.

Balance idealism with pragmatism

Moving the infrastructure and practices of a large company in a different direction doesn’t happen overnight. Remember that every little step forward helps, so rather than get discouraged and focus on the things the company isn’t doing, focus on the small things you can help them accomplish that all add up.

Meet the players

Who's addressing corporate impact issues, and how?

Corporations

What better way to make an impact than from the inside? Today, corporations across nearly every industry — energy, healthcare, consumer products, manufacturing, finance, agriculture, technology, chemicals, communications, professional services, to name just a few — are actively engaged in some form of corporate impact effort, and 83% of the largest companies report on these activities. But even within a company, there are a variety of impact paths you can take.

Dedicated department

Many companies task one department with driving the company’s overall sustainability strategy, environmental initiatives, and/or social impact planning. Often knowledge centers for employee engagement, these positions can ensure consistency and collaboration among different departments. Increasingly, these departments lead the integration of citizenship strategy across the company in support of overarching business objectives.

When it comes to implementing these strategies, these departments contribute in areas including:

  • Detailed reporting: Outlining the corporate impact strategy and specific data on how the company is performing against its social and environmental performance goals.
  • Ethical sourcing: Developing guidelines and working with suppliers to ensure that raw materials are harvested, manufactured, and transported in a sustainable way, and communities are positively affected by the process.
  • Community outreach and investment: Working internally and with stakeholder communities to create projects that create positive impact while achieving business goals. Also, using corporate philanthropic institutions to finance projects and organizations that benefit stakeholders and the environment.
  • Employee engagement: Getting company people involved in impact efforts, including volunteering, changing company culture, identifying new initiatives, and adopting more sustainable operational and business practices.
  • Diversity and inclusion: Working with HR departments to create and advance policies and other solutions for recruiting, and supporting employees with a variety of backgrounds and orientations.

Existing job functions

One of the most far-reaching ways to make a corporate impact is to integrate citizenship and sustainability into existing job functions.

Companies truly integrating citizenship into their culture form cross-functional teams to innovate around sustainability and social impact, and bring new ideas back to their respective departments. Others incentivize employees to improve the company’s impact directly from their job roles.

But you don’t need to wait for your company’s invitation to advance an impact agenda. Whatever your role, you can become a social "intrapreneur” by taking it upon yourself to integrate impact into your day job. This can range from applying a sustainability or social impact lens to all of your activities, to taking on specific impact projects. For example:

  • The choices supply chain managers make play a critical role in how natural resources are used, how waste is handled, and how humans are impacted during the production and distribution process
  • Human Resources professionals have a strong ability to influence culture, training, development, and employee benefits, all of which lend themselves well to incorporating social and environmental impact.
  • As a product manager, you can take a sustainable approach to idea generation, materials analysis, prototype development and iteration, testing, deployment, and pricing analysis.
  • Finance professionals have tremendous opportunity to link the bottom line to social and environmental impacts through their tasks in accounting, reporting, analysis, asset management and investment, and risk management.
  • Employees working in marketing and brand management can employ market research techniques to understand stakeholder needs that inform corporate impact activities, and develop new ways of communicating about the value their companies deliver, both internally and externally.

Nonprofit organizations

Nonprofits — including academic institutions, industry associations, and think tanks — engage in the corporate impact space too. Activities can range from research to advocacy. Major players include Business for Social ResponsibilityThe Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, and (of course!) Net Impact. For details, see Nonprofit Management.

Government

Many government agencies have also started building their own corporate impact-related initiatives and departments, often in their international development branches such as USAID. Working on policy or in a public-private partnership with a corporation also offers opportunities to make a corporate impact from a vantage point in government.