Corporate Innovation Insights

From CSR to Corporate Social Innovation – 6 Tips for Starting your Social Innovation Journey

By July 25, 2020August 3rd, 2021No Comments

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is no longer enough. It is time for businesses to take CSR one step further into Corporate Social Innovation.

Contemplate an example. Think about supermarkets and the negative impact they create through food waste every day. A CSR approach to this problem might be to donate leftover food to local charities. However, by implementing a social innovation approach, a business can do even better and solve the root of the problem. They can completely eliminate food waste and scale their impact into new opportunities and revenue streams.

This example is relatable to all industries. Now, more than ever, businesses need to step up and engage in social innovation. Imagine where this kind of innovation could take us as a society? After all, businesses have the resources, power and scale needed to address the world’s biggest problems.

Why does Social Innovation Matter for Businesses?

Before we dig deeper, let’s firstly look at why corporates should care about social innovation. The answer can be broken down into 3 categories:

  • Profit – addressing sustainability topics is not just good for society, it is good for business. It enables you to stay competitive, create new products and services, explore new revenue streams, enhance supply chains and create innovative business models.
  • People – becoming a more socially innovative and impactful business helps you to attract and retain talent. The research for this one speaks for itself: employees are motivated when their work creates positive impact. And when you have happy employees, you attract (and keep) the best talent.
  • Perception – when you show the outside world you are truly, and transparently, a responsible business you build your brand reputation and your customer base.

How do you start your social innovation journey as a business?

The immense value to be captured from social innovation builds a business case for itself. However, it is often challenging for businesses to know where to start. It takes time and has to align with your values and objectives. However, there are some immediate steps you can take to start challenging ‘business as usual’ within your company. Here are some suggestions:

A Starting Point

1. Get people internally talking.

Bring your CSR department and your Innovation team together. This can be the ‘sweet spot’ for social innovation. Ask both teams to start communicating and explore areas for collaboration.

Tip: provide employees with educational formats/events centered on the topic of social innovation. This will help you create a pool of interested and motivated employees to engage in future programs/topics.

2. Look at your supply chain.

How can you implement more sustainability and be more innovative in your approach to supply chain partners? For example, you could partner with social businesses or buy from them.

Tip: social enterprises (check out Social Enterprise UK for some inspiration) and B-Corporations are great supply chain partners since they meet the highest standards in terms of social and environmental impact. This also creates a launchpad for you to collaborate and create social innovation ideas together.

3. Engage with your social business community.

Learn more about the problems being faced in your local and global communities. Where could you leverage your resources as a business to help?

Tip: partner with local social entrepreneurs and offer mentorship and support. Social businesses struggle with funding and finding mentors so this is a great way to start giving back immediately whilst growing your network and knowledge.

Longer Term Suggestions

4. Create a Social Innovation strategy and get key stakeholders on board.

After years of proven corporate innovation formats being implemented, why not take these and add a social lens to them? For example, you could create:

  • Intrapreneurship programs where employees put forward social business ideas and work together to turn these into reality.
  • Build new ventures that evolve from socially innovative ideas.
  • Startup collaboration programs with social impact startups.

Tip: evaluating previous innovation formats you implemented is a good start here. What worked and achieved the expected outcomes? And what did not, and why? Then, think about how you could take your learnings and adjust these formats to create new approaches with social innovation outcomes.

5. Look at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Where are you already making an impact against the SDGs? And where can you make the biggest impact as a business?

Tip: when it comes to the SDGs, keep your focus on what you are good at and where you can make the most impact (no-one expects you to tackle all 17 goals). Then think, how could we shift our business model to create more social impact and unlock value against our chosen SDG/s?

6. Learn by example.

Who in your industry is shaking things up when it comes to social innovation? And how can you do better?

Tip: some of my favourite corporate examples of social innovation come from Patagonia and Lego. Check them out and see why.

What Next?

These suggestions are by no means a ‘one size fits all’ solution or a ‘quick fix.’ However, they provide a starting point, open the floor for discussion and provide differentiation between traditional CSR activities and social innovation.

My ask of you is to imagine your businesses role in society 10 years from now. Will you be a business that steps up to be more socially impactful and innovative, or will you be left behind?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments and feel free to challenge or add in your own suggestions based on your experience.


If you are interested in implementing proven social innovation formats, contact us at discover@pioneers.io

After working for a world-leading B2B social enterprise for 5+ years, Michaela Stephen is leading the Social Entrepreneurship activities within Pioneers, helping corporates to implement social impact and align this with the SDGs. In this blog, she has compiled her thoughts on transitioning from CSR to corporate social innovation, providing you with 6 tips on how to start your social innovation journey.


Feature photo credit: Akil Mazumder

Michaela Stephen

Michaela Stephen

Senior Innovation Consultant @Pioneers.io