Will the Truth Set Us Free? An Exploration of CSR Motive and Commitment

Date01 March 2016
AuthorJulia Dare
Published date01 March 2016
Will the Truth Set Us Free? An
Exploration of CSR Motive and
This article examines why firms engage in Corporate
Social Responsibility (CSR). Specifically, it investigates
the relationship between a firm’s motivation to engage in
CSR and the depth of its commitment. I propose that the
enduring debate over CSR and financial performance is
misaligned, and that scholars should instead focus on the
underlying components of CSR engagement. This
research sheds light on the motivational antecedents of a
firm’s engagement in CSR and their effect on CSR com-
mitment. Despite calls for scientific investigation of this
linkage, it has received scant attention in the literature.
Pursuing this area of research requires the construction
Julia Dare is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Management at Eberhardt School of Business,
University of the Pacific, 3601 Pacific Ave., Stockton, CA 95211. E–mail: jdare@pacific.edu.
My gratitude is due to many people and organizations. Tom Cummings provided invaluable
feedback in developing the paper. Sandy Green, Manuel Castells, and anonymous reviewers at
BSR provided a number of suggestions at various stages of development. John Coy, president
of The Consulting Network (TCN), provided considerable data for this investigation. Other data
were obtained, in part, through the generous efforts of Tim Mazur, of the Ethics and Compli-
ance Officer Association, Laurie Ginsberg and others at the Aspen Institute, Adlai Wertman,
Founding Director of the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at the University of Southern Cali-
fornia, Mary Gentile, Director of Giving Voice to Values at Babson College, Cheryl Kiser, Man-
aging Director of the Lewis Institute for Social Innovation at Babson College, and Tony Buono,
Founding Director of the Alliance for Ethics and Social Responsibility at Bentley University.
Additionally, eighty firms contributed internal data to this investigation. Without their generos-
ity, this study would not have been possible.
C2016 Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University. Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc.,
350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK.
Business and Society Review 121:1 85–122
of measures of CSR motivation and CSR commitment, as
prior work generally lacks objective analysis. I present
measures and a research methodology that test hypothe-
ses about how CSR motivation relates to different levels of
CSR commitment. The results of this research both vali-
date and challenge current theory. This refined under-
standing of CSR engagement may enhance firm
transparency and accountability to stakeholders. It may
reduce the uncertainty in both internal and external
assessments of firm CSR and the potential for social and
financial impact.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) research has been
dominated by more than forty years of debate over the
value of CSR to business outcomes—the question of
whether CSR affects a firm’s financial performance. So far, there
has been considerable speculation and mixed results of CSR’s per-
formance effects. What is needed is a better understanding of the
reasons or motivations that cause firms to engage in CSR and how
they affect firm commitment to CSR. Understanding these relation-
ships can remove obscurity in stakeholder assessments of the sub-
stance and extent of CSR efforts, as well as their potential for
impact. It can shed light on why discrete firms practice CSR differ-
ently, and the nature of existing CSR models. In addition, it can lay
the groundwork for future studies of how different levels of commit-
ment relate to firm financial performance.
In this study, I examine the relationship between the motivation
that spurs firms to engage in CSR and firm commitment to CSR. I
propose that firms engage in CSR at different levels of commitment
due to three primary motivations: instrumental, relational, and
moral (Aguilera et al. 2007). These motivations do not necessarily
operate independent of each other, but may work together in a
hierarchical pattern. This typology is adopted from Cropanzano
et al. (2001) and is consistent with Swanson’s (1995) model of CSR
In studying commitment to CSR, I seek to provide conceptual
and empirical clarity to the general question of whether firms’ CSR
activities reflect genuine commitment or are simply window dress-
ing. This question is asked more and more by a myriad of stake-
holders and scholars, but is met with very little theory or evidence
to supply a valid answer. My conception of firm commitment to
CSR helps define and quantify the extent to which CSR activities
are genuine. Given the growing criticism that some firms lack com-
mitment to CSR (Laufer 2003), it is time we identify what firm com-
mitment means and how to measure it.
This manuscript is organized as follows: it begins with a sum-
mary of the debate that has dominated CSR research for over forty
years. It follows with a discussion of firm commitment to CSR and
a proposed definition. It then explains firm motivation to engage in
CSR. This leads to hypotheses of how these motives result in differ-
ent levels of CSR commitment, using theories from institutionaliza-
tion, strategy, and organizational justice. The study’s research
design follows. The manuscript concludes with a discussion of the
potential contributions of this study to theory, research, and prac-
tice, as well as a summary of how this research can be extended in
future investigations.
In this article, CSR is defined as the “actions that appear to further
some social good, beyond the interests of the firm and that which is
required by law” (McWilliams and Siegel 2001, p. 117). For decades,
public and privately-held corporations alike have shown varying lev-
els or degrees of commitment to CSR, ranging from adherence to
shallow displays of attention. Some forms have produced joint gain
for business and society, while others generate value for the firm
through legitimacy and favorable press (Doane 2005; Panwar et al.
2014). At one end, mere window dressing occurs when firms
enhance their reputation through public pronouncements of obedi-
ent acts of CSR that generally lack substance. Currently, we do not
have a reliable method of detecting the difference between genuine
commitment to CSR and CSR that exists only for public display.
While the idea of window dressing has received much attention, lit-
tle theoretical and even less empirical work has surfaced. The

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