Earlier this month, Collective Responsibility joined over 120 corporate social responsibility (CSR) professionals in Shanghai for the 4th annual gathering of CSR WeCan. As part of the event, we were invited to speak on a panel titled “Is CSR Dying or Thriving?” – a topic that has been regularly discussed.
Given the liveliness of that debate and the importance of the topic, we thought we would share a few notes and thoughts about the subject.
Is CSR Dead?
As a starting point, CSR has always been a function seen as an “add-on”, a “nice-to-have” within corporations. When sales are good and the bottom line is growing, firms tend to put more into their CSR program – circumstances that are often harder to come by in the leaner years. CSR Managers often discuss their “fight”, and while other consultants spanning the gamut of business activities thrive in today’s markets, CSR consulting firms have struggled to find a foothold.
At the same time, and perhaps counterintuitively to the above, CSR communities have been rapidly growing, and remarkable progress has taken place by governments promoting CSR, rewriting tax codes, and making it easier for (cleared) NGOs to register. All of which has resulted in more money, and people, entering the system.
But, back to the question: Is CSR dead, dying, or thriving? A number of challenges remain before we can say that CSR is here to stay, or that CSR has “made it”.
WHY CSR IS DYING
To begin with, expectations for CSR are often misplaced as many perceive that CSR can, and should, provide answers to the fundamental challenges a business faces. At worst, this means that a firm that does “good” seeks to leverage that up into market access. But more often than not, the effort itself is something top-down that does not engage people — particularly those looking to have a meaningful impact on an issue that is personal to them.
CSR doesn’t solve “real problems”.
CSR managers tend to “talk the talk”. They struggle to fix real-life issues, such as labor conditions in the supply chain, greenhouse gas emissions from trucking fleets, or rural education and healthcare.
Depending on their business, their programs are rarely given the time and resources required for a real commitment to that cause to be made or maintained over time. This further marginalizes CSR programs and program managers.
On some level, this issue lies with the managers themselves. Many in the field lack a business background and are unable to create a strategic lens for CSR. CSR managers today tend to focus on short-term challenges, ticking regulatory boxes and meeting reporting requirements, while losing sight of the broader mission to drive more meaningful progress and solve an actual challenge faced by the business, the community, or the environment.
They have not done a good job helping other corporate divisions (i.e. Finance, Engineering, Operations, etc.) understand why CSR is important for them, and that only makes the challenge more difficult. Lack of support represents one of the greatest long-term threats to CSR itself. Without change, initiatives are unable to create spaces of their own and are once more absorbed into the functions of human resources or public relations – effectively rendering CSR dead.
While the CSR function may be struggling to find solid ground, the CSR community has been continuously growing in wonderful, supportive ways.
15 years ago, CSR was a foreign-led discussion in chambers of commerce, places where early entrants could discuss their favorite one-off programs. But, as more companies now find value in reporting CSR and brand performance, and a large number of conferences and events begin to spring up among the community, small steps towards wider adoption are being made.
For example, take CSR WeCan. In just the past four years, active members have grown from 10 to almost 500, with a regular series of well-attended events and a host of great leaders driving powerful programs through their firms.
Furthermore, as these individuals have had the opportunity to launch and maintain their programs for multiple years, their ability to measure the benefit CSR brings to business is growing clearer. Tying the number of volunteer hours to productivity and employee retention are just two of the measures that HR have increasingly begun to assess.
Finally, government bodies are officially promoting the importance of CSR through legislation and the introduction of new laws, and corporate leaders are being forced to enhance their CSR efforts and plan implementation more strategically.
CONCLUSION: There is REAL Value in CSR, but CSR is under threat.
At Collective Responsibility, we believe CSR holds much more value than producing shiny reports when CSR professionals are given the support they need to go beyond simple, incremental improvements and integrate sustainability into the heart of business. But, when the support isn’t there, and efforts become mere exercises in creating CSR reports, the value proposition for CSR dwindles.
That is why, instead of engaging in endless debates about whether or not CSR is dead, we at Collective focus our efforts on better understanding the challenges faced by these initiatives – and the role of business leadership in solving those challenges.
The value of CSR is not that these programs will ever be the solution in and of themselves, but that CSR is something firms can harness to engage employees, driving higher understanding of communities and markets.
And, through that drive, a spirit of collaboration and problem solving can ultimately lead to the creation of market-viable solutions.