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According to those at the top of the corporate ladder, the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a “hotly growing field.” But how effective is the model of “trickle-down social responsibility”?

Corporate Social Responsibility, defined as “corporate initiative to assess and take responsibility for the company’s effects on the environment and impact on social welfare,” has been on the rise over the past decade (Or rather, “the conscious recognition to call this behavior ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ has been on the rise over the past decade.”) In some cases, CSR is practiced quite explicitly. Businesses like TOMS and Warby Parker (which I have pointed out before) exercise a “for-profit philanthropy” model that attempts to blur business and charity, thereby facilitating an organizational commitment to philanthropy. In other cases, CSR is practiced more reservedly. Firms like Deloitte try to include a philanthropic angle within their company culture through activities like volunteer days and intra-office fundraisers. Although companies practice CSR in vastly different ways, a corporate-wide turn to ethical and contributory conduct would appear to benefit charitable organizations, business leaders, and society at-large.

A very recent example of CSR in practice would be Twitter’s tests on its latest “buy feature.” Essentially, Twitter is testing out a method to allow users to make purchases directly through Twitter. (If you are interested in more of the technical details, click here. Spoiler alert: Twitter’s explanation is ironically longer than 140 characters.) Twitter’s test includes a handful of businesses and musicians, and also includes seven nonprofit organizations. The Chronicle of Philanthropy connected the nonprofit inclusion to CSR:

Beth Kanter, a consultant and social-media expert, says that Twitter recently expanded its corporate social-responsibility staff. Including nonprofits among the test partners is a smart move that could be part of a companywide strategy to support good causes, she says.

Bracketing concerns that Twitter decides which causes are “good” for now, this approach expresses a moderate version of CSR when compared to the organizations listed above. Twitter’s approach to CSR would appear to benefit nonprofit groups, social mediates, and society at-large.

However, a fundamental part of CSR relates to the propagation of good practices within and throughout a company’s culture. In other words, without having employees on board with the mission, CSR becomes a pile of meaningless press releases and a stack of requisite “Volunteer Day” t-shirts.

This past week, Forbes reported on Gallup’s 2013 “State of the Global Workplace Report,” which found rather abysmal results. The top-line of the survey found that only 13 percent of employees are “engaged at work.” Elsewhere, it found that “social media is critical to creating and increasing employee engagement” (why actually visit the water cooler when you can just follow along @ “#watercoolerchat”?). The Forbes author lauded CSR as a possible means for relinking employees to their employers (so much for LinkedIn):

Whether social media is leveraged to discuss the causes that are important to the company’s leaders and employees; share employee stories about volunteering and giving; congratulate winners of a company’s crowdfunding events; promote upcoming community events; address the ways in which the company’s people have made a difference in the causes they care about – and chart the ongoing goals they’re setting for themselves; philanthropy can be a connector, uniter and pillar of engagement.

However, the problem with CSR is its expansive definition. While on the one hand, it seeks to remain relevant to a diverse audience (i.e., all corporations) and therefore it must be vague in order to be universalized. On the other hand, having “values” and “responsibility” seems to be both ambiguous as well as minimalist. Though the intent behind CSR is meaningful, its application suffers from a lack of both clarity and virtue.

Will CSR save employee engagement or will employee engagement revitalize CSR? I would venture to guess that engagement would be the first a step towards a spirited civil society rather than the alternative.

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