2023 brought social impact and sustainability work further into the social, political, and organizational spotlight, and presented leaders with distinct, long-term considerations for their work. Leaders encountered large-scale, composite challenges: the escalation of the anti-ESG movement; the Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action and its subsequent implications for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB); the effects of an increasingly restrictive macroeconomic environment on teams and priorities; and the intensification of regulatory requirements. At the same time, social impact work has matured and deepened, with leaders investing heavily in employee engagement, leaning in on sustainability strategies, cautiously adopting AI, and empowering communities through trust-based and place-based work.

Against this backdrop, NationSwell set out to investigate what forces were most significant in changing the way leaders approached their priorities and decision-making over the past year, and what leaders anticipate about the environment, their organizations, and their jobs in the year to come. Between July and August 2023 we surveyed 74 corporate social impact and sustainability leaders across NationSwell’s membership community and beyond. The resulting report explores the direct opinions and experiences of those leaders, in service to advancing collective knowledge about their essential roles.

Below is a summary of the key findings discussed in greater detail in the report:

Theme 1: Leaders’ confidence takes a hit among a difficult year for impact work

  • Leaders’ satisfaction with their organizations’ social impact is waning marginally amid an increasingly challenging environment.
  • With trepidation about the year ahead, leaders’ confidence in their own work is also dwindling.

Theme 2: Economic and regulatory activity assert their dominance above other forces 

  • Two of 2023’s trending issues – the politicization of ESG and the emergence of generative AI – have not transformed social impact and sustainability strategies. 
  • Instead, macroeconomic conditions had widespread and deep impacts highlighted by layoffs, budget cuts, and new barriers to collaboration.
  • Over the next year, leaders predict that economic conditions and regulatory/legislative activity will be key factors in their prioritization and decision-making.
  • In recognition of their growing need, and in spite of economic uncertainty, leaders will advocate for more funding for social impact and sustainability work in the year ahead.

Theme 3: Influence is leaders’ most sought-after and valued currency 

  • Leaders respond most to the influence of their executive team, and want to wield their own influence in return.
  • Leaders are intent on improving their strategies and capabilities to engage with internal stakeholders.

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