Examining the Nexus of CSR Reporting and the Global Refugee Crisis

Professors Kate Cooper and Rong Wang discuss their research on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and answer questions on their paper, “From Reactionary to Revelatory: CSR Reporting in Response to the Global Refugee Crisis,” published in Business & Society.

This research stems from a project we began together while working as post-docs at Northwestern University in 2017. We found we had several interests in common – both of us were interested in nonprofit organizations, in interorganizational collaboration or networks, and social impact. We had both worked for international organizations before beginning our graduate studies. Now, having completed our PhDs at University of Illinois (Kate) and University of Southern California (Rong), we found ourselves working together on a large research project facilitated by the Network for Nonprofit and Social Impact (NNSI) lab at Northwestern.

Kate Cooper, left, and Rong Wang

At that time, we were consumed with the national and international headlines that detailed refugee movement around the world as well as some of the policy reactions to refugee issues. Rong suggested that we study the issue and, given our interest in interorganizational collaboration, we begin by looking at how corporations described their involvement in refugee issues. In reading about how corporations addressed – or didn’t address – refugee concerns, we came to see refugees as an “emerging social issue.”

Emerging social issues are controversial or have no public consensus, and, as a result, corporations may shy away from addressing them in their social responsibility efforts. Our exploration of refugee programming patterns resulted in a published paper in which we introduced a framework to explore how institutional and organizational factors shape CSR programming in response the global refugee crisis.

Sign in window that reads 'refugees welcome'
(Photo: Unsplash)

In this manuscript that appears in Business & Society, we expanded our data collection to capture Fortune 500 CSR reports between 2012-2019. We were particularly interested in the extent to which organizations described their programs, and whether they were “coupled” with CSR policies or outcomes – that is, whether CSR implementation should be linked to corporate policy (policy-practice coupling) or outcomes (means-ends coupling).

Questions about what and whom CSR programs are for are still up for debate. We explore both sides of this argument in our paper, going into more detail about the reasons that corporations may choose to engage a social issue and how they describe their motivations in their policy statements. We also provide examples of coupled and decoupled CSR programs from corporations themselves.

Ultimately, we suggest a typology that corporations as reactionary, recurring, relevant, or revelatory, depending on whether they engage refugee issues over time and whether their refugee program is coupled with policy and/or impacts. We draw on a constitutive perspective to highlight the power of how corporations frame their efforts, suggesting that how corporations talk about their efforts matters a great deal. We hope that this framework can be useful in considering not just how corporations might engage refugee issues, but in other emerging social issues such as gun control or reproductive rights.

For now, however, we’re continuing our work on interorganizational responses to refugee issues. We’re currently collecting data for a new project that explores how nonprofit organizations respond to refugee needs.

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Katherine R. Cooper and Rong Wang

Dr. Katherine R. Cooper is an assistant professor of communication studies in the College of Communication, DePaul University. Dr. Rong Wang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication, at the University of Kentucky.

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