2023 Private Sector Social Impact and Sustainability Leadership Survey

2023 Private Sector Social Impact and Sustainability Leadership Survey

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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2022 Private sector social impact leadership survey

2022 Private sector social impact leadership survey

Leaders who bring confidence, creativity, and conviction to their work are arguably the most important ingredient to generating social impact. Often behind the scenes, these individuals play key roles in elevating and executing the social and environmental priorities of their organizations, priorities that are increasingly imperative for the private sector. Juggling stakeholder interests, cross-company engagement, and increasing expectations for monitoring and reporting, delivery of a social impact strategy is not an easy task.

From 2021 to 2022, we saw the emergence of the Russia-Ukraine war, the highest daily case counts of the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple mass shootings, deadly instances of extreme weather, and the repeal of Roe v. Wade – all followed closely by ever-louder calls for the private sector to speak out and step up. Leaders in corporate social responsibility and ESG (environmental, social, and governance) were on the receiving end of those calls, setting the priorities and making the decisions that shaped their organization’s actions. 

So what exactly were the most significant forces that changed the way leaders in these functions approached their priorities and decision-making over the past year? What did leaders do differently, and why? And what are leaders anticipating the environment, their organizations, and their jobs to hold in store for the year to come? 

To answer those questions and more, NationSwell launched a survey in August 2022 specifically for private sector social impact leaders. The resulting report explores nine major findings across three categories: 

General sentiments

  • Despite a challenging environment, leaders are satisfied with their organization’s social impact and their personal contributions; they also remain confident in their ability to perform in the year ahead
  • Compared with their assessment of overall social impact, leaders are less impressed by their organization’s response to pivotal moments in the past year; the same is true of their individual contributions during those moments
  • Leaders view creating economic growth – for communities and for individuals – as secondary to their company’s other societal contributions

Headwinds and tailwinds

  • Global conflict, the pandemic, and extreme weather significantly outrank domestic social and policy events – including the repeal of Roe v. Wade – for influence on leaders’ priorities
  • Leaders share a growing concern about economic conditions, but differ widely on other top headwinds to impact
  • Organizational stakeholders provide steady tailwinds for social impact leaders, but the influence of other companies is on the rise

Change and adaptation

  • Acknowledging key vulnerabilities and the power of collective action, leaders are creating new frameworks for responding to pivotal moments and seeking strength in numbers
  • To become more confident about their paths ahead, leaders need more financial resources; they also need clarifying information about their organizations
  • In considering overall career goals, leaders crave thought leadership – their own and that of others

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Social impact professionals’ views on the changing talent pipeline

Social impact professionals’ views on the changing talent pipeline


The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the way we work in unprecedented ways, both positively and negatively. While many employees attained new flexibility to work from home, and others exercised new leverage to pursue beneficial career shifts, many others experienced significant difficulties, like record high rates of burnout, layoffs, and rising cost of living. Educational attainment patterns have also shifted, with lower levels of post-secondary enrollment and higher levels of dropout changing the outlook for future workforce qualifications. For employers, these trends are increasing pressure to evaluate strategies and investments that affect the education, training, and retention of their current and future employees.

To better understand the sentiments and priorities of purpose-driven professionals, individuals who are often at the vanguard of social impact and innovation, NationSwell partnered with Lydia Loizides, President of Talentedly. Together we surveyed the NationSwell Council, a diverse community of individual changemakers, to learn more about their unique perspective on the evolving demands of the talent pipeline in the United States. This report provides findings from that survey.

Specifically, it explores three themes that emerged from eight major findings: 

Educating the future workforce

  • Social impact professionals say the educational and job training ecosystems are in need of reform to better prepare young people for success in the workforce
  • Social impact professionals aren’t ready to do away with post-secondary education as a credentialing system
  • Social impact professionals want companies to be more directly involved in the education and training of the workforce, including during their post-secondary years
  • In their desire for a more prepared workforce, social impact professionals say soft skills are the most important

Hiring and recruiting talent

  • DEIB remains a top priority for social impact professionals, particularly as it pertains to recruiting and retention, but actions are lagging behind intentions
  • A majority of social impact professionals are aware of organizational plans to change hiring and recruitment strategies in the next 12 months, identifying a range of modest to bold efforts to increase candidate diversity

Retaining and engaging employees

  • To keep employees satisfied and engaged, organizations have been focused on improving communications from senior leadership and promoting remote/hybrid workplace flexibility.
  • ​​Social impact professionals are keen on increased compensation and stronger communications around professional advancement as key to strengthening employees’ job commitment in the next 12 months.

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