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Philanthropy - No Stand-In for Better Behaviour

The Economist, not normally a booster of corporate social responsibility (CSR) or sustainability as it  tends to be known in Europe, this week has a piece on CSR that hits the mark. The author concludes that corporate philanthropy (contributions to charitable causes) is being cleaved but the attention being paid to behaviour -- ethics and governance in particular -- is holding steady, as it should.

There is one other important reason for thinking that companies will maintain their commitments to sustainability through the downturn and beyond: the  need to restore confidence in business. The financial crisis was triggered by a bout of corporate social irresponsibility on a massive scale that has tarnished the reputations of even the bluest of blue-chip companies. Now corporate leaders have a chance to show that they are not just motivated by short-termism after all."  

 As Intel (a client) says in the management analysis and strategy
portion of its 2008 corporate responsibility report (Note . . . I agree with ridding CSR of its restrictive 'S')

"By incorporating corporate responsibility directly into our strategy and objectives, we manage our business more effectively and understand our impact on the world more clearly."

Corporate or 'strategic' philanthropy is a programmatic means by which a company contributes to its community. Philanthropy evidences a corporate recognition that profits are derived from the community and that a return to the community in the form of wages paid for labor and consistent dividend payments to shareholders as well as steady share price growth is -- at least in terms of today's social expectations -- insufficient.

Communities expect companies to give back, and companies have obliged either through random acts of kindness or more structured investments in causes which match company values or business goals.

But let's be honest. Philanthropy is unlikely to define or affect company behaviour when it comes to choosing business strategy, rewarding employees, managing supply chain relationships, committing to respectful and sensitive business principles and overseeing board and C-suite conduct. 

A generous philanthropy program, and commitment to a cause, can comfortably sit side-by-side with dishonest accounting, excessive senior executive compensation, autocratic and harsh management, deferential governance, poor labour and sourcing practices, and denial of environmental impact. Philanthropy provides a reputational sheen, but it doesn't de facto require ethical conduct or a socially astute business strategy. Philanthropy buys goodwill but it doesn't drive responsible behaviour nor build social trust.

If The Economist is right, and I think it is, and the decline in spending on smoke-screen philanthropy is NOT being matched by a retreat from investment (time, focus, intensity) in better behaviour, then maybe out of the current crisis we will see a steady push-back within companies against insular corporate boards, inappropriate rock star-like CEO salaries, and short-sighted and opaque business strategies.

Restoring Reputation

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