Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Hip and Happenin' CSR

A lot of people are getting caught up in the whole CSR thing, without really knowing or understanding what CSR is really about. It's a new and hip tagline for some, a nice section for the Annual Report, with pretty photos of hugging kids or planting trees. But there is no substance, no tie in to the business, no buy in from staff.

It makes me recall a disturbing conversation I had with a colleague once. Her company had partnered with an NGO which focused on HIV/AIDS education and awareness. Oh, there was the big corporate splash, with internal blasts and a media release and the requisite pretty photo for the website etc. During an internal event, geared at promoting wellness, the "partners" from the NGO placed posters throughout the office about prevention and condomising. Somehow the word "condom" and the accompanying image did not find favour with the chief exec, who was aghast that such a poster would be placed in the building, and he demanded that it be removed forthwith. Furthermore, there was to be no distribution of condoms to staff. Only pamphlets, and that was a miracle she achieved through no meagre effort.

And that's what a lot of businesses are doing, to one degree or another. There is a lot of talk but no real action or ownership of CSR initiatives. If that exec's personal convictions about condoms were so strong, perhaps he should have explored another cause to support, if he was really and truly interested in genuine CSR activities in the first place. It's a lot of gloss really in some organisations. Companies support a cause - and it's either usually a one-off event with no follow through, no sustainability, no partnerships, or a cause they do not thoroughly examine and assess for relevancy to their business, their core values, their people.

And the people part they often ignore completely - both externally and internally. Sponsorships are not CSR. Let's get that straight. Anyone can hand over a cheque, but CSR really should place greater focus on the human resource as opposed to the financial resource, and the long term benefits of partnerships to both the community and the organisation. CSR does not live with any one department, but it should be such an integral part of the social fabric of the organisation that the employee should feel a sense of ownership, commitment and responsibility. But often, that people element is missing. And it's simple things. Like the Finance Team helping an NGO out with their accounting or the legal team guiding them on governance issues. Or the communications team helping them to build a social media presence to promote their work and attract volunteers. It comes down to how employees are engaged, how policies and systems internally foster empowerment, creativity and company loyalty.

So all this hip and happenin' CSR talk around the place means nothing if there is no real commitment from organisations to really get it right. But do we want to do the work to get it right? Or is it just easier on everyone to snap the photo and get on with the rest of it? That's the burning question.


It's funny, companies will spend on Sports Days and Awards ceremonies, but CSR activities like beach clean-ups and helping out an NGO can go far in helping co-workers build links with each other outside the office. Plus they are doing something for the community.

But the problem for many organisations is that CEOs forget that their personal preferences shouldn't determine the organisations CSR activities. It should be like you said a way to use the companies human resources in ways that benefith them and the community.

What companies should also try to encourage is letting the staff have a say in what they support, based on the CSR objectives, of course. It's so much richer when employees can identify organisations or events that really resonate with them and you then have CSR advocates without breaking a sweat!

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