“I am the biggest believer in responsibility—social and otherwise.”
Many responsibly-minded leaders and their organizations the world over endorse this view. Increasingly, conferences and gatherings in the social impact domain have focused on two key themes that underlie the point. First, that responsible action has to be at the very heart of an organization, its mission, and its operations, and secondly, the recognition that responsibility—literally “response-ability”—must be spread across multiple sectors to address the world’s most complex challenges.
H.E. Khaled Al Kamda, Director General of the Community Development Authority of the Government of Dubai, opened the second day of the World CSR Congress in Mumbai with this quote, which perfectly captured the spirit and content of a gathering of some 1,400 leaders from 130 countries. He went on to clarify and propose one of the best definitions for corporate social responsibility, or CSR, I had ever heard.
“This is not just merely about how much you give, but how you act and react, how transparent, how ethical, how much of your work is really touching the people.”
In other words, CSR is not charity. By contrast, effective CSR is not an afterthought, but a mindset that guides the formation of effective and impactful business strategy. Dwayne Baraka of Value CSR agreed, emphasizing that CSR needs to focus on core business, how companies make money in the first place, not solely on philanthropy.
“The obvious answer to ‘giving back’,” says Baraka, “is to stop taking so much in the first place.”
World CSR Congress Connects Minds to Create a Better Future
For the fourth year in a row, Dr. R. L. Bhatia convened an impressive group of leaders to recognize the “best of the best” in social responsibility and to encourage even greater commitment from those with a fervent desire to discover the best use of CSR. The two-day event explored several facets of CSR, including sustainability, green energy, water, social innovation, corporate affairs, and nonprofits, with more than 100 awards presented for excellence across each category.
Equally impressive was the distribution of leaders from across sectors and nations: corporations, universities, government agencies and authorities, and social sector organizations engaged in spirited, respectful and optimistic dialogue about the ways in which the most challenging issues facing the world can be addressed in a holistic way.
Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future, outlined a dozen important business trends that will encourage companies to adopt CSR-driven business strategy. Long-held notions of “cradle to grave” supply chain management, she observed, are being disrupted by the momentum of a broader movement toward a circular economy. Renewable energy of all varieties is becoming increasingly prevalent, a potentially disruptive force in the well-established infrastructure of fossil fuel-based economies. The sharing economy, once on the fringe, has broken into the mainstream, as companies like Uber and AirBnB have disrupted established markets, which has a significant effect on traditional drivers of economic growth, the production and delivery of both goods and services. Last, and perhaps most importantly, shareholder values are gaining ground on shareholder value, a trend that underscores how socially-minded thinking has become a chief concern of investors committed to supporting both responsible and profitable initiatives.
By mandating CSR investments, the Indian government has given Indian companies the ready-made “business case” for CSR. Uren challenged companies and their potential partners to think of India’s new CSR legislation, which mandates that companies give two percent of their net profits to charitable causes, as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. “Use the regulation to start your journey,” said Uren, “to becoming a sustainable business by focusing your CSR and sustainability activities for business value and positive impact.” Being required to invest in CSR and shared value gives companies a new incentive to discover ways in which it can also deliver for the bottom line.
In my presentation to the World Congress, I shared how companies that support pro bono projects—which position highly skilled corporate employees as pro bono consultants in underserved markets—can lead to a “triple win” that delivers value to employees, companies, and communities around the world. Program participants describe their experience as transformative leadership and professional skill development opportunities. Local client organizations are eager for the increased capability and capacity they receive pro bono, which would otherwise be unaffordable. And companies gain insight and relationships in new markets that foster sustainable and inclusive businesses.
The choice of projects companies can choose is not without limit; the Indian government has provided a tangible list of appropriate issues corporations can support to meet the requirements of the 2 percent law. These include eradicating extreme hunger and poverty; promoting access to water and sanitation; supporting access to education, increased livelihoods, and employment through enhanced vocational skills; improving health; empowering women and reducing child mortality; and ensuring environmental sustainability. The priorities also endorse support for social enterprise.
Fortunately, this list is quite broad. It’s difficult to think of a company who might not be able to respond to at least one of these needs in a way that is also strategic for their business, assuming its leaders view CSR as an effective way to lead their business forward.
Charities @ Work Unites Employee Engagement with Corporate Citizenship
Half a world away, more than 50 CSR managers at leading U.S. companies gathered for the annual Charities @ Work conference, a convening of corporations that have moved far beyond discussing philanthropy—strategic and otherwise. The summit transcends its name with a focus on what delivers impact: effectively engaging employees in service opportunities that deliver meaningful value.
“Don’t get stuck on the name,” said Carol Cone, the Chair of Edelman’s Business + Social Purpose, with a wry smile. “Here’s the cool news: this is not a trend. Companies that succeed in building a profitable relationship with the external world define themselves through what they contribute.” Companies, she argues, no longer face a black and white choice to be sustainable or not, but can find ways of “generating long term value for shareholders by delivering value to society as well.” She pointed to the Edelman Trust Barometer in which 81 percent of respondents indicate that companies can pursue their self-interest while also doing good work for society.
Everything old is new again. Where there is great need, there is great opportunity. Corporate leaders have always known this, but the challenge, as ever, has been to frame needs in ways that business can address. Embedded within the Charities @ Work summit was just such an opportunity, with an introduction to the United Nations post-millennial goals, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Though they do not impose the same mandate as India’s 2 percent CSR law, the SDGs do provide an easy construct around which companies can align and integrate their CSR programs.
Providing governments, companies, and social sector organizations with one set of goals around which to coalesce holds enormous promise. IMPACT 2030, a private-sector led coalition to use corporate volunteers as a way to address and accelerate progress toward these goals, provides one clear way that companies can meaningfully contribute to their achievement. And even those countries with different objectives, like India, have identified specific priorities that mirror at least eight of the SDGs. As strategies that lead with responsibility become the norm, tactics will differ from region to region, but the fundamentals will remain the same. Not only must companies consider their issue of focus, but they must also evaluate their impact on all stakeholders, as well as ways to leverage partnership and collaboration among sectors to achieve real progress.
Back in India, Dr. Massouda Jalal, the former Minister of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan, a former presidential candidate, and the founder of the Jalal Foundation, summarized this approach best, during her keynote address. “If we want a better world,” said Jalal, “We need to build a global army of supporters and challenge the action which corrupts the foundations of the world we dream about. We need to look at the issues holistically.” Her words were echoed by enthusiastic nods by the hundreds of CSR leaders gathered before her.
“I’m heartened that there is such a thing as corporate responsibility,” Jalal observed. “I commend you for your social responsibility—the heart of the corporate world which beats for the public and making the world a better place to live.”
Photo from Blue Dart World CSR Day album.
Laura Asiala is the Vice President, Public Affairs at PYXERA Global. Passionate about the power of business to solve—or help solve—the world’s most intransigent problems, she leads the efforts to attract more participation of businesses to contribute to sustainable development through their people and their work. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Net Impact, a community of more than 40,000 student and professional leaders creating positive social and environmental change in the workplace.