Sign Up Early for SB'24 San Diego and Save! Spring Rate Ends June 23rd.

Walking the Talk
The Missing Piece in Holistic CSR Strategies

These forward-thinking companies' efforts show that committing to education as part of a brand’s CSR strategy is, truly, a commitment — but one that can pay dividends both to society and the company itself.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has evolved significantly since it was first formulated back in the 1970s and gained broad clout in the 1990s. Then, it was often focused on enhancing a company’s reputation, often through meaningful efforts such as local environmental clean-ups, staff volunteer programs, or donations to non-profit organizations. But it was rarely strategic, nor addressing societal change; instead, it usually focused on communities or sectors directly connected to the brand itself.

That is changing. In a world facing crises including a global pandemic, escalating climate-related weather events, and systemic inequities, doing CSR the old-fashioned way — as feel-good, one-off events — is no longer feasible. Brands are increasingly facing pressure from customers to take on big social challenges. One way a brand can begin addressing these broad issues is by focusing its CSR strategy on education.

“We must build the missing layer of education — the instruction that prepares students with the skills to build more vibrant and healthy lives,” Tom Davidson, founder and CEO of EVERFI — an international technology company driving social change through education — recently told Fortune. “There is a way to address this: by democratizing education and recognizing the vital role of Corporate America.”

Education is important to consumers

According to a recent EVERFI white paper, 60 percent of consumers want companies to spend their CSR budgets on education — more than art, health, sports or economic inequality. They also found that 66 percent of consumers say companies have an obligation to invest in the future workforce through education. Moreover, according to Meg Moyer, VP of research at EVERFI and author of the white paper, these consumers are also more likely to stay loyal:

“Those who value education in a company’s social impact efforts are more likely to spend more money on a product even when a more affordable option exists, recommend a brand to a friend, follow a brand on social media, download their app and donate to a charity that brand supports."

Investing in or working with partners to improve education outcomes may seem daunting at first, and it will require significant organizational buy-in, including from the top. But it can be done and could be the best way to advance a more sustainable, equitable future.

Brands at the forefront

One company already integrating education into its CSR strategy is Stanley Black and Decker (SBD) — market leader in the manufacture of industrial tools and household hardware, and provider of security products. At first glance, education may not seem like a natural focus for the company — but, in fact, it is very much so.

“We have — as a broad, diverse, industrial organization — a lot of skills in engineering, graphic design, artificial intelligence, robotics; so, we can offer more than just philanthropic dollars — we can offer expertise, as well,” Nick Keightley, SBD’s corporate environment health safety and social responsibility director, told Sustainable Brands.

Sensing an opportunity and driven by an engaged CEO, SBD set an ambitious goal in 2018 — to empower 10 million “makers and creators” with new skills by the year 2030 — noteworthy not only for its scope, but its long-term, future-focused target. The figure, 10 million, is meaningful too; according to Keightley, it’s the number of global manufacturing jobs that remain unfilled due to a shortage of workers with the right skills.

SBD’s efforts focus on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) education — and includes programs to reach students, up-skill existing workers, and encourage more people to get trained in trade skills. The company works with proven field partners such as the Business Higher Education Forum, WorldSkills and Greenlight for Girls.

“It’s not just giving skills, but creating a passion for engineering and science — and pivoting that slightly to also indicate a potential career path,” Keightley said.

Despite being several years into the program, measuring impact remains a challenge because educational outcomes are hard to track. Currently, SBD relies on partners, and is exploring ways to measure broader social and financial gain. But in the end, what matters most is not the direct benefit to SBD; but if the program is working and helping people gain needed skills.

“It’s good to make sure that when we invest there’s an impact, a gain for society,” said Keightley. “For education, we’re giving it to the individuals, who may not pay anything back to SBD. If we’ve done some good for them, it’s good for us.”

SBD is not alone — as more and more brands are testing innovative ways to incorporate education into their CSR strategies. For example, telecommunications giant AT&T can play a unique role in increasing access to digital learning. While this digital gap became a bigger issue as the pandemic forced students to attend classes from home, it is actually a longstanding issue..

AT&T’s Connected Learning program is directly linked to the company’s core business focus. It aims to address the digital gap by working with teachers and schools to increase access to high-speed internet access. It also has, importantly, a public policy component — AT&T lobbies and pushes for greater investments in broadband infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Mastercard has taken a more holistic approach with its Scholars Program — launched back in 2012 — with a goal of supporting the education and leadership development of 15,000 young people in Africa. In order to assess the program’s impact, after five years the company commissioned a report that highlighted challenges and learnings from the program, which has since grown to support 35,000 African students.

Long-term impacts and benefits

Moyer believes that these brands will benefit not only from a more educated workforce, but also from greater brand loyalty. “Education-concerned consumers are high-value customers. Investing in attracting these customers via education efforts can pay off for companies in the form of increased engagement and ongoing loyalty,” she said in the white paper.

SBD, AT&T and Mastercard’s efforts show that committing to education as part of a brand’s CSR strategy is, truly, a commitment — but one that can pay dividends both to society and the company itself. It is a win-win strategy for any forward-focused brand looking to expand and grow its social impact.