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Qual Quant (2013) 47:3205–3218

DOI 10.1007/s11135-012-9713-4

Small & medium-sized enterprises and Corporate Social

Responsibility: a systematic review of the literature

Rosario Vázquez-Carrasco · M. Eugenia López-Pérez

Published online: 24 April 2012

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Abstract Most business management research to date has either failed to look at firm size
as a factor or focused its attention on large companies. The fact is, however, that small and
medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are unique, making general assumptions applicable to other
types of firms of little use. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is no exception. Recent
decades have seen a plethora of studies which debate definitions, consider content and scope,
and study causal relationships with antecedents and implications of applying CSR. Yet only a
small percentage of the literature has delved into SME realities. Through a systematic review
of the literature, the present study aims to analyze the state of the question and identify the
theoretical framework of reference, and CSR antecedents and consequences in SME contexts
in order to provide a jumping off point for future empirical studies. Hence, after consulting a
cross-section of internationally renowned experts and the SSCI/JCR Index, we have reviewed
articles in the foremost management journals (Academy of Management Review, Academy
of Management Journal, Journal of Management Studies, Journal of Management, Strategic
Management Journal), SME management journals (Journal of Small Business Management,
International Small Business Journal, Small Business Economics) and CSR-related journals
(Business Ethics Quarterly, Corporate Governance: An International Review, Journal of
Business Ethics, Business Ethics: an European Review and Business & Society). Our find-
ings shed light on key themes including idiosyncrasies of CSR management, aspects such
as terminology and language, the recommended theoretical framework, and antecedents,
barriers and potential impact of CSR in the SME context.

Keywords CSR · SMEs · Systematic literature review

R. Vázquez-Carrasco (B)
Departamento de Organización de Empresas y Marketing, Pablo de Olavide University, 41013 Sevilla,
e-mail: rvazcar@upo.es

M. E. López-Pérez
Areca Consulting Group, C/ Marqués de Paradas, 24 5◦ D, 41001 Sevilla, Spain
e-mail: administracion@arecaconsultores.com

3206 R. Vázquez-Carrasco, M. E. López-Pérez

1 Introduction

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is currently receiving a good deal of attention, both
in terms of academic research and business practice (Taneja et al. 2011). One sign of this is
the over 70 million Google hits for the term (over 2 million if you search for the term in Span-
ish). In business practice too there is a growing tide of firms boasting socially responsible
policies—not only in the financial, industrial or agricultural and food sectors but in all other
industries as well, regardless of size or location. Nestlé, Tesco, HP, BBVA and Renault are
just a few examples of well-known, CSR-conscious multinationals which find themselves
in the company of a growing number of smaller, more locally operating enterprises. Public
institutions encourage actions taken by individual firms in an effort to get them involved
in social development locally (Von Weltzien and Shankar 2011). Porter and Kramer (2006)
delve deeply into the pros and cons as well possible justifications for CSR. A review of the
literature confirms that only a small minority of research publications fail to cover the topic.
The first formal definition of CSR dates back to 1953 (Bowden): the obligation on the part
of the businessman to adopt policies, make decisions and follow desirable lines of action in
terms of societal objectives and values so as to have the potential to contribute to society’s
general wellbeing. Since Bowden, CSR research has matured. Of special interest is Carroll’s
1999 contribution which analyzes the evolution of the discipline. Hence, we know that the
construct appears explicitly in the 1950s—the decade which marks the dawn of the modern
era of CSR thinking. The following decade witnesses the birth of additional definitions and
CSR’s raison d’être is debated, with authors such as Friedman (1962) linking it to profit.
The 1970s see the discipline’s coming-of-age, while a host of empirical studies and offshoot
concepts appear in the 1980s. Contributions by Drucker (1984) stand out, suggesting a cor-
relation between CSR and business opportunities in terms of market, productivity, human
resources and competitiveness. A phase of relative maturity takes place. Notions relating to
performance (CSP), Stakeholders Theory and business ethics take center stage and enjoy
widespread acceptance. In the last decade of the twentieth century, CSR continues to be
a key construct in business management but gradually gives way to alternative theoretical
frameworks. Responsibilities associated with economic prosperity, social cohesion and envi-
ronmental sustainability are acknowledged and a fourth dimension is added: philanthropy
(Perrini 2006; Porter and Kramer 2006). Such practices are supposed to be voluntary in
nature, directly linked to business ethics and further reaching than current legislation (Fassin
et al. 2011).
The majority of CSR research has centered on enterprises of some size while SMEs have
received only a limited amount of attention in the literature to date (Baden et al. 2011; Fassin
et al. 2011; Lynch-Wood et al. 2009; Perrini et al. 2007; Murillo and Lozano 2006). The
uniqueness of the SME context—along with the fact that the conceptual framework only
includes large companies—make more studies necessary if the nature and dynamics of CSR
in smaller firms are to be fully understood (Von Weltzien and Shankar 2011; Morsing and
Perrini 2009; Perrini et al. 2007).
To this end—prior to delving into a concrete study of CSR dimensions, or its relation to
other aspects of business strategy and action—an analysis of the state of the art is needed in
order to identify the theoretical framework, research methodology and themes of interest in
the SME context. This study aims to provide just that: a systematic review of the specialized
literature. Our first task, therefore, was to identify the leading journals of reference in the
following areas: (i) Business Management, (ii) SME Management, and (iii) CSR. Next, key
articles dealing with the theme of reference were identified using a set of predefined search

Small & medium-sized enterprises and Corporate Social Responsibility 3207

criteria. Finally, following an analysis of the selected articles, we shed some light on the most
relevant aspects of the state of the question.
The article is structured as follows. The second section explains the significance of sys-
tematic literature review and the processes which underpin it. Auditable and repeatable search
criteria which yield reliable results are discussed as well. Key results of the study—confirm-
ing our conclusions with respect to journal type, time lapse, methodology and other relevant
topics—are presented in the third section. In the fourth section, we look at key aspects of
each of the four pivotal themes we have identified. The fifth and final section provides an
arena for discussion and conclusions.

2 Systematic review of the literature

One objective of systematic literature review is to provide a portrait of existing research on

a given subject. Systematic reviews take stock of the body of literature to date using precise
filtering techniques to screen the search and evaluate each related study in a critical, justified
way. The basic criterion is to provide valid, applicable evidence for use in future research.
Hence, such reviews should be methodical, clear and reproducible—the aim being to boost
the knowledge base in order to facilitate appropriate decision making (Tranfield et al. 2003).
Systematic literature review can be considered to be a fundamental scientific activity with
an underlying logic rooted in various premises. First and foremost, large amounts of infor-
mation must be broken down into more useful units in order to facilitate comprehension and
management. This will pave the way for an effective use of existing scientific evidence. In this
sense, as Rousseau et al. (2008) observe, systematic reviews involve an ordered accumulation
of concepts, interpretive reflections and analysis of the entire body of evidence relating to a
specific question: in our case, CSR in SME contexts.
Literature review makes it possible to identify key studies along with potential lines of
research of interest to the scientific community. Such reviews should include information on
the process followed and be both auditable and repeatable—in other words, researchers using
the same search and analysis criteria should obtain the same results. The goal is to provide
a clear, objective, synthetical study summarizing the evidence—where search and analysis
bias is kept to a minimum (Rousseau et al. 2008; Tranfield et al. 2003).
In general, articles are selected for review via an exhaustive title and abstract search. Arti-
cles which do not meet inclusion criteria are discarded. The key during this phase is to base
search and inclusion criteria on quality criteria. The steps proposed by Kitchenham et al.
(2009) and Baumann et al. (2002) served as a guideline for our review of the literature:
1. Define the research question(s) to be addressed (i.e., CSR and SMEs)
2. Carry out the search in (i) a set of bibliographic databases and/or (ii) in a well-defined
and justified journal sample using one or more predefined key words. To this end, we
used the advice received from a cross-section of internationally renowned experts and
only reviewed articles found in top management journals which—as an additional quality
measure—are also included in the SSCI/JCR Index.
3. Include the key words CSR and SMEs in the search fields (title and abstract). This allowed
us to identify and select articles published to date on CSR in SME contexts.
4. Finally, analyze each article in order to identify the theoretical framework, methodolog-
ical approach and interesting potential lines of research.
The data generated during the search phase was organized in a database (Excel) which is
available to readers upon request. Data analysis was carried out using QSR NVivo software.

3208 R. Vázquez-Carrasco, M. E. López-Pérez

Table 1 Articles analyzing CSR in SME contexts

Publication Articles (authors, year of publication)

Academy of Management Review (0) –

Academy of Management Journal (0) –
Journal of Management Studies (1) Darnall et al. (2010)
Journal of Management (0) –
Strategic Management Journal (0) –
Journal of Small Business Dibrell et al. (2011), Niehm et al. (2008) and Kobeissi (2009)
Management (3)
International Small Business Baden et al. (2011)
Journal (1)
Small Business Economics (0) –
Business Ethics Quarterly (0) –
Corporate Governance: an –
International Review (0)
Journal of Business Ethics (14)
Cornelius et al. (2008), Fassin et al. (2011), Gugler and Shi
(2009), Jamali et al. (2009), Jenkins (2006), Murillo and
Lozano (2006), Ortiz and Kühne (2008), Perrini et al.
(2007), Perrini (2006), Preuss and Perschke (2010), Russo
and Perrini (2010), Russo and Tencati (2009), Von
Weltzien and Shankar (2011) and Williamson et al. (2006)
Business Ethics: an European
Review (9) Davies and Crane (2010), Fassin (2008), Fisher et al. (2009),
Hamman et al. (2009), Jenkins (2009), Lynch-Wood et al.
(2009), Morsing and Perrini (2009), Murillo and Lozano
(2009) and Nielsen and Thomsen (2009)
Business & Society (0) –
Source: The authors

The preliminary data from our review of the literature—including the most relevant results
and conclusions—is presented in the following section. This report documents the state of
the art of CSR research in SME contexts.

3 Results

Once the most relevant journals had been identified for each of the areas of reference (busi-
ness management, SME management and CSR), we proceeded to introduce search terms into
each journal’s search engine (advanced search). The results provided here were last updated
on October 20, 2011. A total of twenty-eight (28) article hits were obtained. Table 1 displays
the articles by source journal.
An analysis of the tables of contents of the most prestigious management journals (top-
five) revealed a total absence of articles focusing on CSR realities in the SME context. Our
search in Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, Journal of
Management and Strategic Management Journal failed to turn up any results whatsoever.
There are multiple references to articles on CSR—covering theoretical framework, drivers
and barriers, consequences—however, in general (i) they focus on large firms or (ii) do not
take size-related differences into account. Only the Journal of Management Studies published
one (1) article on the subject in 2010.

Small & medium-sized enterprises and Corporate Social Responsibility 3209

A review of the specialized SME journals (top-three) sheds light on the low profile CSR
has suffered to date, despite it being a growing trend in business management. Only three (3)
references to the concept appear in the Journal of Small Business Management, for instance,
relating to aspects of performance, market, innovation and regulation. It is noteworthy, more-
over, that in all three cases the studies in question take a quantitative approach. Only one (1)
reference to CSR turns up in the International Small Business Journal—a qualitative study
of the SME-society link and the desired voluntary nature of CSR actions (Baden et al. 2011).
Our review of Small Business Economics resulted in zero hits. Finally, point out that of the
four (4) references to CSR found, three (3) appeared in studies published in 2009 or later
(75 % of the total), which gives some idea of the direction of the trend.
Business Ethics Quarterly, Corporate Governance: an International Review, Journal of
Business Ethics,Business Ethics: A European Review and Business & Society have proven
to be the most relevant CSR research publications (top-five). We should note here that only
our searches of Journal of Business Ethics (14) and Business Ethics: A European Review (9)
produced results; in the case of the latter, seven (7) are linked to a special issue on CSR and
SMEs published in 2009. No studies explicitly analyzing CSR in SME contexts could be
found in any of the other journals we reviewed, although CSR-related studies did appear—
just under 40 in Corporate Governance: An International Review; 16 in Business & Society;
and 9 in Business Ethics Quarterly.
Worth mentioning as well is that the oldest reference to CSR in SME contexts dates to
2006, while 65 % of all references to the concept are from 2009 or later. This fact seems
to support claims that the topic is trending and underscore the opportunities in this line of
In short, the results of our systematic review of the literature seem to indicate that:
– Studies covering CSR in SME contexts have not been published in more general focus
journals. However, a small yet growing number of articles have appeared more recently
in journals which specialize in the field. We found the general body of literature allowing
for a more in-depth look at CSR in SME contexts in two business ethics and corporate
governance journals.
– 75 % of the studies found in SME journals were published in 2009 or later while only 65 %
of the articles published in business ethics and corporate governance journals correspond
to the same period. Moreover, there are no references to the topic prior to 2006. This data
indicates we are dealing with a trending topic.
– The articles we reviewed cover very diverse aspects of CSR management in SME contexts.
That said, four key themes stand out: (1) the relationship between CSR and the business
dimension, (2) terminology and language issues, (3) the debate surrounding the theoret-
ical framework of reference, where Social Capital Theory seems to eclipse Stakeholder
Theory which has defined the general framework for CSR, and (4) the identification of
CSR drivers and barriers from the perspective of SMEs. This last line of research also
considers consequences of CSR. A summary of our content analysis and codification
process carried out using QSR NVivo software is provided in Table 2.
From a methodological standpoint, recent work by Taneja et al. (2011) indicates that,
generally speaking, CSR-related research to date has primarily been exploratory, descriptive
and causal in nature—with a qualitative, quantitative or hybrid focus (p. 347). Secondary
data, questionnaires, case studies, focus groups, experiments and action research were used
as well. When it comes to analyzing the data (Taneja et al. 2011, p. 348) many research-
ers have turned to descriptive analysis, content analysis, regressions, causal maps, factorial
analysis, correlation analysis, conjoint analysis, path analysis, Logit models, and structural

3210 R. Vázquez-Carrasco, M. E. López-Pérez

Table 2 Summary of the content analysis process (thematic & methodological)

Topic Article (year of publication, methodology)

CSR & the Business Dimension

Baden et al. (2011, QL), Cornelius et al. (2008, C), Davies
and Crane (2010, QL), Fassin (2008, QL), Hamman et al.
(2009, C), Jamali et al. (2009, QL), Jenkins (2006, QL),
Kobeissi (2009, QT), Morsing and Perrini (2009, QL),
Murillo and Lozano (2006, QL), Nielsen and Thomsen
(2009, QT), Perrini et al. (2007, QT), Perrini (2006, C),
Preuss and Perschke (2010, QL), Russo and Perrini (2010,
C), Russo and Tencati (2009) and Von Weltzien and
Shankar (2011, QL)
Terminology & Language
Fassin et al. (2011, QL), Jamali et al. (2009, QL), Jenkins
(2006, QL), Lynch-Wood et al. (2009), Murillo and
Lozano (2006, QL), Ortiz and Kühne (2008, QL) and
Russo and Perrini (2010, C)
Theoretical Framework
Cornelius et al. (2008, C), Darnall et al. (2010, QT), Fisher
et al. (2009, QL), Hammam et al. (2009, C), Jamali et al.
(2009, QL), Jenkins (2006, QL), Niehm et al. (2008, QT),
Ortiz and Kühne (2008, QL), Perrini et al. (2007, QT),
Perrini (2006, C), Russo and Perrini (2010, C) and Russo
and Tencati (2009, QT)
Drivers/Barriers & Consequences
Davies and Crane (2010, QL), Dibrell et al. (2011, QT),
Gugler and Shi (2009), Jenkins (2009, QL), Jenkins
(2006, QL), Kobeissi (2009, QT), Lynch-Wood et al.
(2009, QL), Murillo and Lozano (2009, QL), Murillo and
Lozano (2006, QL), Perrini et al. (2007), Perrini (2006),
Preuss and Perschke (2010, QL), (Von Weltzien and
Shankar, 2011, QL) and Williamson et al. (2006, QL)
Source: The authors
C conceptual; QL qualitative; QT quantitative

equation models; in short, a wide range of methods—similar to those used in the vast majority
of business and management research. However, on delving deeper into the specific area of
CSR in SME contexts, our systematic literature review reveals a prevalence of conceptual
studies, complemented by qualitative research. To date, far fewer quantitative studies have
surfaced, perhaps due to the fact that the conceptual framework in SME contexts has yet
to be fully defined. That said, the three quantitative studies in JSBM are exceptions to the
rule; all evidence reinforces the notion that we are dealing with a line of research still in its
early stages—lacking in maturity. As the framework of reference solidifies, the qualitative
pilot/exploratory studies we have found will, undoubtedly, be replaced by research of a more
confirmatory, quantitative nature.

4 CSR in SME contexts: key research themes

4.1 CSR and the business dimension

The statistics indicate that more than 90 % of the world’s companies are SMEs, generating
almost 65 % of employment worldwide (e.g., Jamali et al. 2009; Perrini et al. 2007). Yet, their

Small & medium-sized enterprises and Corporate Social Responsibility 3211

profile differs significantly from larger firms—not only in terms of access to resources but
with respect to other qualitative aspects of a structural, social and functional nature as well
(Davies and Crane 2010; Russo and Perrini 2010; Perrini et al. 2007; Jenkins 2006). SMEs
“are not small versions of big companies” (Preuss and Perschke 2010; Russo and Tencati
2009; Tilley 2000). Yet, collectively, they can make a significant contribution to society (Von
Weltzien and Shankar 2011; Morsing and Perrini 2009; Jenkins 2006). Therefore, as Murillo
and Lozano (2006) suggest, becoming familiar with the peculiarities of this type of company
is desirable.
Often, when the organizational structure and management scheme for SMEs is analyzed,
only a minor distinction between owners and management is observed (Preuss and Perschke
2010; Russo and Tencati 2009). A human factor is perceived as well—much more clearly
than in the case of larger firms which often display a more paternalistic, authoritarian profile
(Russo and Tencati 2009; Murillo and Lozano 2006). Informal relationships predominate and
communication tends to flow (Preuss and Perschke 2010; Fassin 2008; Perrini et al. 2007;
Jenkins 2006; Spence and Lozano 2000).
Authors such as Preuss and Perschke (2010), Hamman et al. (2009), Jamali et al. (2009),
Perrini et al. (2007), Fuller and Tian (2006) and Jenkins (2006) point out that this kind of ‘more
human’ management is rooted in management personality—closely linked to owner/man-
ager intuition and/or values structure. Hence, a greater level of honesty and integrity can be
assumed, as SME actions do not tend to be solely a function of purely economic objectives
and profit ratios (Baden et al. 2011; Russo and Perrini 2010; Sarbutts 2003). This is high-
lighted by the fact that SME managers themselves frequently recognize that on the whole
they do not wish to publicize CSR activity, as their behavior is philanthropic in nature, altru-
istic and aimed at personal satisfaction (Jamali et al. 2009). Naturally, this tendency is not
incompatible with a certain degree of pragmatism on the part of SME management and the
pursuit of positive commercial outcomes.
Another aspect worth pointing out is the greater degree of autonomy enjoyed by SME man-
agers, which can have repercussions for CSR action and agendas (Jenkins 2006). Enhanced
flexibility and capacity to react (Preuss and Perschke 2010)—owing, perhaps, to the multi-
functionality of SME employees (Perrini et al. 2007; Murillo and Lozano 2006) is noteworthy
as well. Integrating CSR into SME company planning also boosts employee satisfaction and
fosters loyalty (Davies and Crane 2010; Russo and Perrini 2010).
SMEs also tend to establish closer ties with their local communities (Kobeissi 2009;
Nielsen and Thomsen 2009; Russo and Tencati 2009; Niehm et al. 2008; Perrini et al. 2007;
Jenkins 2006) which, coupled with negligible impact on local markets has fueled coinage of
terms like “silent CSR”, “sunken CSR”, etc. (Russo and Tencati 2009; Jenkins 2006; Perrini
2006). SMEs can also vary behavior according to the demands of companies in their supply
chain (Russo and Tencati 2009; Fassin 2008), in order to improve relationships with financial
institutions (Von Weltzien and Shankar 2011; Russo and Perrini 2010; Jenkins 2006; Murillo
and Lozano 2006) (Table 3).
Whatever the case may be, CSR-related contributions linked to SME contexts have been
defined as nonsystematic,unstructured and non-formalized within the global strategy of the
organization (Russo and Tencati 2009); in large corporate environments, on the other hand
CSR contributions are described as systematic, planned and calculated, quantifiable and
measurable (Jamali et al. 2009).
In SME contexts, however, CSR can also contribute towards creating market opportunities,
increasing efficiency, reduce costs, foster innovation, attract and retain qualified employees
and strengthen ties to communities of reference (Preuss and Perschke 2010; Hamman et al.
2009; Jenkins 2006; Perrini 2006).

3212 R. Vázquez-Carrasco, M. E. López-Pérez

Table 3 Principal differences in CSR focus: SMEs versus large enterprises

SMEs Large enterprises

Philanthropy, altruism Economic perspective, strategic orientation

Discretionality Holistic focus
More intimate relationships with stakeholders; More formal/distant relationships with stakeholders
importance of the local community
Strong inspiration, poor integration, moderate Weak inspiration, strong integration, poor innovation
Ethical conception, owner values Instrumental orientation, economic objectives
Nonsystematic, unstructured, non-formalized Systematic, calculated, formalized, measurable
Source: Adapted from Jamali et al. (2009)

4.2 Terminology and language

A good portion of academic research in the business sector—including specific CSR

research—has focused almost exclusively on large company contexts (Fassin et al. 2011). It
is not surprising, therefore, that the terminology used is almost always technical—and often
incomprehensible and inaccessible to SME management. Frequently, the language used by
corporate administrators is more academic, distant and formal than the more intuitive, relaxed
register of SME supervisors (Jamali et al. 2009).
Furthermore, some confusion exists with regard to the definition of CSR itself (Jenkins
2006), to the extent that the generic term can even become inoperative and counterproductive
in the case of SMEs because standards of reference were established with large corporations
in mind (Russo and Perrini 2010; Murillo and Lozano 2006). Almost all definitions of the
concept, for example, make reference to stakeholders; yet many SMEs do not include this
term in their management vocabulary (Lynch-Wood et al. 2009; Jenkins 2006).
The term CSR can even be used to refer to a completely different concept in SME contexts
(Russo and Perrini 2010). Authors like Perrini et al. (2007) point out that many SMEs exhibit
business behaviors which have a social, economic and environmental impact but do not use
the specific term CSR to describe it. Another common situation is the case of SMEs whose
actions are in line with CSR but who are unaware that this is so (Perrini et al. 2007).
Within the scope of the present study, an example of this problem regarding language and
terminology comes to light when we analyze CSR reports—which, in our opinion, neither
validate real CSR action nor demonstrate more socially-responsible behavior; formalization
and technical language, in excess, can even be counterproductive. On the other side of the
coin, the absence of such reports and/or the use of more accessible language do not nec-
essarily imply that SMEs are not behaving in socially responsible ways. CSR calls for a
specific focus in smaller business contexts and for adaptation to the informal nature of the
SME business style. CSR’s essence resides in the adoption of socially responsible business
practices; it is more about the successful application of appropriate attitudes and business
cultures than the mere formalization of the concept and its processes, or the use of one term
or another.
In order to assess CSR action then, evaluate its impact and explain its utility in SME
contexts we must clearly adapt the language we use to do so (Jamali et al. 2009). Sev-
eral alternatives have been suggested. Murillo and Lozano (2006), for example, propose
the term responsible competition. Lepoutre and Heene (2006) prefer small company social

Small & medium-sized enterprises and Corporate Social Responsibility 3213

responsibility. More recently, Ortiz and Kühne (2008) recommend responsible business
behavior, and Jamali et al. (2009) coin the generic term business social responsibility.

4.3 Conceptual framework: ‘stakeholders theory’ versus ‘social capital theory’

The European Union defines CSR as a concept according to which organizations voluntar-
ily integrate social and environmental aspects into their operations and interactions with
stakeholders. It is possible that the real objective and primary function of companies is not
merely to maximize profits—that a firm’s success is measured via quality indicators reflect-
ing the relationships they establish and maintain with stakeholders; in other words, perhaps
companies should assume some degree of social and environmental responsibility (Russo
and Perrini 2010). The voluntary nature of the CSR paradigm—above and beyond legal pre-
scriptions and company-society interaction—should be highlighted as well. Companies are
responsible for their activities within a social fabric in which they must function and generate
long term value in order to guarantee survival (Garriga and Melé 2004). Thus, identifying
the players who may affect these interactions is of the essence—to the extent that effec-
tively managing relationships with stakeholders becomes an absolute priority. According
to Freeman (1984) stakeholders are “those groups which may affect—or currently have an
impact on—an organization’s ability to reach its objectives”.
Hence, the next question is to identify the stakeholders and assess their weight (Russo and
Perrini 2010). Both the specialized literature (e.g. Jamali et al. 2009) and business practice
alike take owners, employees, clients, suppliers, public institutions, the environment and
society in general into account. It is suggested that in SME contexts the relationship with
stakeholders is close, unique, highly personalized and often on a one-to-one basis (Perrini
2006). As authors like Darnall et al. (2010) and Jamali et al. (2009) demonstrate, SMEs
tend to pay more attention to the satisfaction of internal stakeholders—especially employ-
ees—versus the more external focus of large corporations. Habitual contact with the local
community of reference is noteworthy as well (Russo and Tencati 2009).
Jenkins (2006) argues that perhaps the nature of company–stakeholder relationships is
essentially not so different between SMEs and large enterprises—although small and large
companies do manage these relationships very differently. This could be owing to the size of
the organization, the number and proximity of stakeholders, or organizational culture itself.
As authors such as Spence and Schmidpeter (2003), among others, point out, many SMEs
tend to be linked to local social initiatives and committed to the development of the region.
Moreover, as mentioned in the previous section, often SME managers do not really know
who their stakeholders are. This could have something to do with the definition for CSR
proposed by the European Union, which explicitly focuses on stakeholders and may be the
source of confusion in SME contexts.
It seems more appropriate, therefore, to take Stakeholders Theory implicitly and base our
conceptual framework on Social Capital Theory (e.g. Russo and Perrini 2010; Fisher et al.
2009; Niehm et al. 2008; Ortiz and Kühne 2008; Perrini et al. 2007; Perrini 2006) in order
to understand SME commitment and motivation regarding certain social aspects.
Social capital is a multidimensional concept which has been analyzed from different
angles with a focus on features involving trust, reciprocity and relational factors (Putman
1993, 2000; Ostrom 1991). Aspects relating to business ethics such as transparency and
benevolence stand out. More specifically, as Putman (2000) indicates, social capital makes
reference to the connections between individuals, including social networks based on trust
and reciprocity norms which enhance societal efficiency and development through coordi-
nated actions. Thus, the notion of social capital stock is born which—by way of a virtuous

3214 R. Vázquez-Carrasco, M. E. López-Pérez

Table 4 CSR factors in SME

Owner character & values
Manager economic/social model
Competitive impact
Innovation potential
Differentiation desire
Source: Murillo and Lozano Legal regulations

circle—reinforces itself, fostering cooperation, civic awareness, and collective wellbeing

(Spence and Schmidpeter 2003).
According to social capital theory, reputation, trust and legitimacy become key intangi-
ble stock for organizations—and the basis for long-term results; especially in the case of
SMEs with close ties to the community in which they operate (Perrini 2006; Spence and
Schmidpeter 2003).
In short, the existence of multiple stakeholders is recognized and, by way of social capital,
mutually satisfactory relationships are built (Perrini 2006). The way in which relationships
with stakeholders are managed will legitimize business activity, which in turn will be closely
tied to a series of moral and legal obligations with respect to the local community (Dunham
et al. 2006).

4.4 Developing CSR in SME contexts: drivers and barriers

CSR should be seen as a value-building factor in SME contexts (Von Weltzien and Shankar
2011), independently of whether the motivation behind it is altruistic or not. Whichever the
case may be CSR can and should be conceived of more in terms of opportunities than costs for
the company. That said, authors such as Jenkins (2006) point out that the motivation behind
adopting CSR principles in SME contexts can differ with respect to corporate scenarios.
From the perspective of implantation, both internal and external drivers must be identified.
Studies by Cambra-Fierro et al. (2008), Perrini et al. (2007), and Murillo and Lozano (2006)
discuss internal factors such as owner/manager values, versus external factors including mar-
ket opportunities and legislation (Gugler and Shi 2009; Kobeissi 2009; Jenkins 2006; Murillo
and Lozano 2006). On the whole, the literature suggests prevalence of internal owner/man-
ager-related drivers of an ethical/moral nature (e.g. Preuss and Perschke (2010); Lynch-Wood
et al. (2009); Jenkins (2006)) over external pressure, highlighting phrases like “the right thing
to do”, “everybody has a responsibility to do what they can”, or “well-being and satisfaction”
(Jenkins 2006, p. 249) (Table 4).
As Von Weltzien and Shankar (2011); Perrini et al. (2007), Perrini (2006) and Jenkins
(2006) point out, cultivating CSR has its advantages for SMEs. Benefits include:
– Attracting qualified employees and improving employer–employee relations.
– Encouraging innovative action and increasing the chances of finding growth opportuni-
– Improving supplier–client relations and providing access to certain markets.
– Enhancing brand image and positioning.
– Facilitating differentiation and increasing visibility.
– Aiding in long-term cost reduction
Satisfaction, self-realization and motivation stand out among the benefits of CSR for
SMEs, although there are clear economic and commercial opportunities as well (e.g. Jenkins
2009, 2006; Perrini 2006; Williamson et al. 2006) (Table 5).

Small & medium-sized enterprises and Corporate Social Responsibility 3215

Table 5 Benefits of CSR in

Enhance image & reputation
SME contexts
Boost confidence levels
Improve market positioning
Increase business volume
Greater scope
Boost personal motivation
Make more attractive for section process candidates
Decrease expenditure & increase efficiency
Improve risk management
Source: Jenkins (2006) Profits

Table 6 CSR in SMEs versus large enterprises

CSR impact factor Large enterprises SMEs

Drivers External pressure, business Internal motivation, values

rhetoric (risk reduction, brand structure
reinforcement, anticipation of
legislation, investment)
Stakeholders Broad relations with Different degrees of intensity
all + interaction with civic (depending on links with the
organizations community of reference)
Experience & Management capacity Strategic planning, standardized Depending on the
reports, reactive or adaptive owner/manager’s know-how &
profile discretion
Organizational structure Formal Informal
Market type Brand reinforcement (above all in No market pressure except
consumer markets) partnership demands (e.g.
supply chains)
Advantages Considerable impact (above and Flexibility, potential short-term
beyond the organization) benefits
Disadvantages Prevalence of economic Budget constraints & difficulties
criteria/motivation measuring results
Conceptual framework Organizational level, Individual level, Social Capital
Stakeholders Theory Theory (Stakeholders Theory
Source: Preuss and Perschke (2010)

There is little room for doubt that it is in SME managers’ best interest to take all of
these factors into account. It is also true, however, that SMEs face a series of hurdles that
discourage the strategic implantation of CSR, among others: limited perceived commercial
utility, implementation costs and budget restraints, human resource-related concerns (lim-
ited employee capacities and skills), and a general lack of familiarity with aspects such as
CSR-related tools and standards (Von Weltzien and Shankar 2011).
Especially interesting in this regard is recent research by Preuss and Perschke (2010), who
identify and compare a series of factors which have an impact on CSR implantation in both
SME and corporate contexts. We have summarized these authors’ ideas in Table 6.

5 Conclusions

SMEs are increasingly aware of their social responsibility; hence, the need for more re-
search into CSR and small business realities. Guidelines must be drawn up with the aim of

3216 R. Vázquez-Carrasco, M. E. López-Pérez

transforming practice into opportunities for growth and enhanced socially responsible posi-
tioning (Russo and Tencati 2009) given that—as we have reiterated throughout this study—
many generic conclusions in the literature to date are not applicable and must be adapted
to SME idiosyncrasies. Perhaps researchers are barking up the wrong tree, as Morsing and
Perrini (2009) suggest. Is our initial question off track? Maybe it is not so much a business
question; rather we should shift our focus to the social impact and the how, in order to better
understand the CSR–SME relationship.
This study—rooted in a systematic literature review—has reached the initial goal of estab-
lishing the state of the question. A thorough analysis of the contents of the most relevant
business management, SME and CSR journals confirms our suspicion that we are dealing with
a very relevant line of research with a lot of potential for future studies. Approximately 65 %
of the references we found date to 2009 or later. None are prior to 2006. Highlights include
justification for adapting CSR research to SME idiosyncrasies, language and terminology
issues, and concerns regarding the theoretical framework of reference (where Social Capital
Theory is prevalent over Stakeholders Theory), drivers, barriers and consequences of CSR.
Moreover, qualitative studies which are conceptual and exploratory in nature predominate.
Much less common are quantitative, confirmatory studies, suggesting that the discipline is
still far from reaching maturity—quite the contrary of more general CSR research in corporate
Despite this study’s clear contribution to the literature, several limitations are worth men-
tioning. First and foremost, it should be noted that our results could have been slightly different
if search criteria had been modified. We followed Kitchenham et al. (2009) and Baumann
et al. (2002) guidelines in an attempt to minimize the effects of this weakness and guarantee
reliability and replicability. Journal selection was based on our poll of internationally recog-
nized specialists and researchers and—as an added measure of caution—only included in our
study after confirming that each and every suggested journal was in the SSCI/JCR listings.
Nevertheless, certain trends in the field of reference can be observed which made it possible
to identify topics of interest. Secondly, the timeframe of our analysis may also have a slight
impact on our search results, especially in the case of forthcoming research or articles in
press. Finally, content analysis can be subjective to a degree. We tried to minimize bias via
individualized codification and by debating conclusions until we reached consensus. While
this is the obvious place to mention research limitations, it should also be noted that flaws of
this sort are inherent to systematic literature reviews as a genre.
With regard to future lines of research, we propose all of the questions set forth in sec-
tion 4.4 of this study on antecedents, barriers and consequences of CSR in SME contexts.
Potential research highlights include: brand image reinforcement and market positioning—
already demonstrated in general CSR literature but lacking conclusive results in the case of
SMEs; aspects relating to resource availability, the market dimension, difficulties associated
with measuring results, or internal and external motivation for adopting CSR can justify the
framework of reference for future studies. Whichever topic/angle is chosen, the framework
of reference should be rooted in Social Capital Theory.
Another interesting line of research is human resource management, selection processes
and motivation in SME contexts. One possible launch point would be to consider employees
as key stakeholders. Our proposal is to delve into the principal–agent relationship and apply
Agency Theory to informal structures, from the perspective of Strategic Management. And
finally, why not, a multidisciplinary approach to good and bad CSR management practice—
conjugating strategic, commercial, financial and operational factors—in SME contexts.

Small & medium-sized enterprises and Corporate Social Responsibility 3217


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