Redefining CSR: From Programs to Movements through Transformative Learning Theory

Employee Volunteering, Transformative Volunteering, Volunteer Training, Volunteering Experience

Things are changing across the landscape of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Companies are increasingly recognizing the need to shift from traditional, programmatic approaches to more dynamic, movement-oriented strategies. This shift is driven by the growing recognition that lasting, meaningful change in communities and society at large requires more than just isolated programs and initiatives. Instead, it demands a fundamental transformation in how companies engage with their employees, stakeholders, and the communities they serve. 

At the heart of this transformation lies Transformative Learning Theory (TLT), a practical and widely utilized framework that can be instrumental in helping CSR managers transition the focus of the work from programs to movements. By embracing the principles of TLT, companies can foster a deeper, more sustainable engagement with their community investment efforts, unleashing the full potential of their employees as agents of change. 

In this article, we explore how TLT can support the evolution of CSR from a programmatic approach to a movement-oriented one. We’ll delve into the key elements of TLT, including critical reflection, dialogue, and empathy, and examine how these can be applied to deepen employee engagement, transform organizational culture, and drive sustainable impact. 

Understanding Transformative Learning Theory

Transformative Learning Theory, first introduced by Jack Mezirow in the late 1970s, is a framework for understanding how individuals transform their perspectives, beliefs, and behaviors through critical reflection and dialogue. At its core, TLT posits that transformative learning occurs when individuals are challenged to question their assumptions, engage in critical self-reflection, and develop new ways of seeing and interacting with the world. 

According to Mezirow, transformative learning involves a 10-step process that begins with a disorienting dilemma, a situation or event that challenges an individual’s existing beliefs and assumptions. This is followed by a period of self-examination, critical assessment of assumptions, and recognition that others have undergone similar transformations. The individual then explores new roles, relationships, and actions, plans a course of action, acquires knowledge and skills for implementing the plan, provisionally tries out new roles, builds competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships, and finally, reintegrates into life based on new perspectives. 

While Mezirow’s original theory focused primarily on individual transformation, subsequent scholars have expanded TLT to encompass social and collective dimensions of learning and change. This is particularly relevant in the context of CSR, where the goal is not just to transform individual employees but to create a broader cultural shift within the organization and drive collective action toward social and environmental goals. 

Transforming Programs into Movements  

Traditional CSR programs, while well-intentioned, often suffer from a lack of deep engagement and ownership among employees. They tend to be top-down initiatives, driven by corporate directives rather than the intrinsic motivation of employees. As a result, participation in these programs can feel like just another box to check, rather than a meaningful opportunity to make a difference. 

In contrast, social movements are characterized by a deep sense of personal commitment and passion among participants. They are driven by a shared vision and a belief in the power of collective action to drive change. Movements rely on the intrinsic motivation of individuals to take ownership of the cause and become advocates and leaders within their spheres of influence. 

To transform CSR programs into movements, companies need to embrace a transformative approach to learning and engagement. This involves creating opportunities for employees to undergo the kind of perspective-shifting experiences that lie at the heart of TLT. By fostering critical reflection, dialogue, and empathy, CSR managers can help employees connect their personal values and aspirations with the company’s social and environmental goals, creating a sense of shared purpose and commitment. 

Here are three key ways that TLT can support the transition from programs to movements:

1. Deepening Employee Engagement and Ownership

One of the central tenets of TLT is the idea that transformative learning occurs when individuals are challenged to question their assumptions and engage in critical self-reflection. In the context of employee volunteering (and even giving), this means creating opportunities for employees to have experiences where they can examine their own beliefs, values, and behaviors in relation to social and environmental issues. 

CSR managers can facilitate this process by designing transformative volunteering and giving experiences that expose employees to new perspectives and challenge them to think critically about their role in addressing societal challenges. This will likely involve volunteering in communities facing social or environmental challenges, dialogues with stakeholders from diverse backgrounds, and reflective exercises that encourage employees to explore their own biases and assumptions in a non-threatening manner. 

By engaging in this approach to company supported volunteering and giving, employees are more likely to develop a deep sense of personal connection and commitment to the company’s community and environment investment goals (as a result of triggering affective commitment). They become active participants in shaping the direction of the company’s social and environmental initiatives, rather than passive recipients of top-down directives. 

This shift in perspective is crucial for nurturing a movement mentality, as it relies on the intrinsic motivation of employees to drive change. When employees feel a sense of ownership and agency in relation to the company’s CSR efforts, they are more likely to become advocates and leaders within their spheres of influence, helping to build momentum and support for the movement.

2. Transforming Organizational Culture

Another key aspect of TLT is the recognition that transformative learning is not just an individual process, but a social and collective one. In other words, transformative learning is not just about changing individual perspectives and behaviors, but about creating a broader cultural shift within the organization. 

To truly embrace a movement-oriented approach to CSR, companies need to foster a culture that supports continuous learning, adaptation, and change. This means creating an environment where employees feel valued not just for their contributions, but for their potential to effect change and drive innovation. 

CSR managers can play a crucial role in facilitating this cultural transformation by modeling the kind of critical reflection and dialogue that lies at the heart of TLT. This involves creating spaces for open and honest conversation about the company’s social and environmental goals, as well as the challenges and opportunities involved in achieving them. 

It also means recognizing and rewarding employees who demonstrate a commitment to continuous learning and growth, as well as those who take initiative to drive positive change within the organization. By celebrating these kinds of behaviors and contributions, CSR managers can help to create a culture that values and supports transformative learning and action. 

Over time, this kind of cultural shift can help to embed CSR deeply within the fabric of the organization, making it a core part of the company’s identity and purpose. When CSR becomes an integral part of the company’s culture, it is more likely to be sustained over the long term, even in the face of changing business priorities or economic pressures.

3. Driving Sustainable Impact through Empathy and Connectedness

Finally, TLT emphasizes the importance of empathy and connectedness in driving meaningful, sustainable change. In the context of CSR, this means fostering a deep sense of understanding and connection between employees and the communities and stakeholders they serve. 

CSR managers can facilitate this process by creating opportunities for employees to engage in dialogue and collaboration with community members, stakeholders, and partners. This could involve community listening sessions, co-creation workshops, or other participatory processes that prioritize the voices and perspectives of those most impacted by social and environmental challenges. 

By engaging in these kinds of activities, employees are more likely to develop a deeper understanding of the complex social and environmental issues facing communities, as well as the lived experiences and perspectives of those most affected by them. This understanding is crucial for designing and implementing CSR initiatives that are responsive to community needs and priorities, and that have the potential for lasting, sustainable impact. 

Moreover, by fostering a sense of connectedness and solidarity between employees and communities, CSR managers can help to build the kind of broad-based coalitions and partnerships that are essential for driving systemic change. When employees see themselves as part of a larger movement for social and environmental justice, they are more likely to collaborate and coordinate their efforts with others who share their vision and values. 

This kind of collective action is always found operating as part of any successful social movement because it allows individual efforts to be amplified and transformed into a powerful force for change. By prioritizing empathy and connectedness in their CSR efforts, companies can help to build the kind of broad-based support and momentum that is necessary for achieving meaningful, sustainable impact. 

Doing the Hard Work of Putting this into Practice: Action Steps for CSR Managers  

While the principles of Transformative Learning Theory provide a valuable framework for transitioning from a programmatic to a movement-oriented approach to CSR, putting these ideas into practice can be challenging. Here are some specific recommendations and action steps that CSR managers can take to begin implementing a transformative learning approach within their organizations: 

  1. Conduct a CSR audit: Before embarking on a transformative learning journey, it’s important to take stock of your company’s current CSR efforts. Conduct a comprehensive audit of your existing programs, initiatives, and partnerships, assessing their impact, engagement levels, and alignment with your company’s values and goals. This will provide a baseline from which to measure progress and identify areas for improvement. If you’re a Social REV member, everything you need to tackle this is under “Assess the Current”! If you aren’t a member, start with our free download: Strategic Program Structure Framework. 
  2. Develop a learning and development strategy: Transformative learning requires a systematic approach to employee learning and development. To do this, the Realized Worth team works with your CSR team as well as HR and learning and development teams to create a comprehensive strategy that includes a range of learning experiences, from immersive community-based projects to reflective workshops and dialogue sessions. Our work with hundreds of companies to develop this kind of content ensures that these experiences are designed to challenge employees’ assumptions, foster critical reflection, and build empathy and connectedness. Check out our Immersive Learning Experience with Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits for just one idea of what training can look like. 
  3. Create opportunities for employee ownership: To foster a sense of ownership and agency among employees, create opportunities for employees based on their highest level of contribution (according to the 3 Stages of the Journey of the Volunteer) to take the lead on CSR initiatives and projects. This could involve creating employee-led CSR committees or task forces, providing funding and resources for employee-driven initiatives, or recognizing and rewarding employees who demonstrate leadership and initiative in advancing the company’s CSR goals. 
  4. Build partnerships and coalitions: Achieving systemic change requires collaboration and partnership across sectors and stakeholders. Seek out partnerships with community organizations, NGOs, academic institutions, and other companies to amplify your impact and build broad-based coalitions for change. Engage in regular dialogue and consultation with community members and stakeholders to ensure that your efforts are responsive to their needs and priorities. Try out our Social REV Collaboration Guide for Community Partners on Backstage!  
  5. Measure and communicate impact: To build momentum and support for your CSR efforts, it’s important to measure and communicate the impact of your initiatives. Develop a robust framework for measuring the social and environmental impact of your programs, as well as the engagement and learning outcomes for employees. Share these results regularly with internal and external stakeholders, using storytelling and data visualization to bring the results of your investments to life. Social REV members, use our How To Guide: Measure and Report on Employee Social Impact Programs along with the Social Impact Program Measurement Workbook on Backstage. 
  6. Celebrate successes and learn from failures: Transformative learning is a journey with both successes and failures along the way. Celebrate the successes and milestones achieved by your employees and partners, recognizing the hard work and dedication that went into them. At the same time, create a culture where failures are seen as opportunities for learning and growth, rather than something to be avoided or punished. 

Transformative Learning Theory offers a powerful framework for CSR managers seeking to transition their companies from a programmatic approach to a movement-oriented one. By embracing the principles of critical reflection, dialogue, and empathy, CSR managers can help to deepen employee engagement and ownership, transform organizational culture, and drive sustainable impact in communities. 

While this journey is not always easy, it is increasingly necessary in a world facing complex social and environmental challenges that require bold, collective action. By harnessing the full potential of their employees as agents of change, companies can not only enhance the impact and scalability of their CSR efforts, but also align them more closely with their core values and strategic objectives. Ultimately, by embracing a transformative learning approach to CSR, companies can position themselves as leaders in the movement toward a more just, sustainable, and equitable future.

Chris Jarvis

CSO & Co-Founder

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Realized Worth helps you take a transformative approach to volunteering. We work with companies to create scalable and measurable volunteering programs that empower and engage employees, focus on empathy and inclusivity, and align with your most important business objectives. Talk to us today to learn more!


  1. What Is The Transformative Learning Theory? This resource provides an overview of transformative learning theory, its definition, examples, and how it can be applied in the classroom. TLT focuses on the idea that learners can adjust their thinking based on new information and aims to facilitate a fundamental change in learners’ perceptions through critical reflection and understanding of new perspectives. 
  2. What is a Social Movement? Social Movement Definitions. This resource provides a comprehensive overview of social movements, their impact on society, and their connection to corporate social responsibility, including definitions, types, theories, and facts. CSR managers can benefit from reading this article as it provides insights into stakeholder expectations, guidance for corporate social responsibility initiatives, and a deeper understanding of the importance of social movements in shaping business practices.
  3. The Link Between Social Movements and Corporate Social Initiatives: Toward a Multi-level Theory. This article provides a theoretical framework and insights on understanding the role of social movements, leveraging ideologies and values, shaping organizational culture, engaging stakeholders, and influencing decision-making. ​ It also highlights the importance of collective action, recognizing the clash of ideologies, leveraging organizational culture, and considering contextual factors. By applying the knowledge and insights from the article, CSR managers can empower employees to actively engage in social movements and drive meaningful change within the organization and society. 
  4. Clarifying the concept of social capital through its three perspectives: individualistic, communitarian and macro-social. This article provides insights for CSR managers who are interested in shifting their CSR programs towards social movements. It explores the concept of social capital and its three perspectives: individualistic, communitarian, and macro-social. ​​ These perspectives offer valuable guidance for CSR managers seeking to foster a sense of agency and create a social movement within their organization.
  5. Fostering Critical Reflection In Adulthood: A Guide To Transformative And Emancipatory Learning: Transformative adult learning is centered on critical reflection. This resource offers insight no how habitual meaning schemes and deeper meaning perspectives can become distorted, and how critical reflection on these epistemic, sociocultural, and psychic distortions is key to transformative learning. This theoretical framework would be helpful for CSR managers aiming to foster reflective, emancipatory learning within their organizations and stakeholder communities. 
  6. Using the Disorienting Dilemma to Promote Transformative Learning: This article provides a comprehensive overview of transformative learning through the analysis of three diverse experiences. It discusses the characteristics of disorienting dilemmas and the phases of perspective transformation, highlighting how these processes can lead to personal and professional growth. CSR managers would find this useful for designing learning experiences that challenge assumptions and foster transformative learning, emphasizing the importance of addressing emotions and facilitating reflection. 
  7. The Institute for Social Capital: This research provides a comprehensive definition of social capital, describing it as the positive outcomes from human interaction, such as favors, information, and opportunities. It also covers different types of social capital and its potential benefits and drawbacks. This would be helpful for CSR managers to better understand the importance of social capital and how it relates to business success, as well as identify relevant types and assess its impact. 
  8. The Neurobiology of Collective Action: This article presents a neurobiological model of collective action (CA), highlighting the role of empathy and the neuropeptide oxytocin. Studies show oxytocin release is associated with increased trust, reciprocity, and generosity – key CA behaviors. The findings offer insights for CSR managers on leveraging biological mechanisms to promote prosocial behaviors, navigating group dynamics, and understanding how factors like emotional responses and institutional trust influence CA. This provides a robust theoretical foundation to inform more effective CSR initiatives. 
  9. Sustainability In the Synapses Neuroplasticity and Transformative Learning: This presentation, by Daniel J. Glisczinski, an RWI Faculty member, explores connections between neuroplasticity and transformative learning, suggesting transformative experiences rewire the brain’s neural networks. It maps transformative learning stages like disorienting dilemmas and critical reflection to corresponding brain regions and functions, providing a neurobiological basis for understanding transformative learning. This can guide CSR managers in designing learning experiences to foster transformative mindset shifts and reshape deeply-held assumptions, supporting impactful CSR initiatives. 
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