All tagged CR

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.

Spirited debates happen all the time when people talk about corporate responsibility (CR) especially now that our economies are stumbling along and evidence continues to leak out about the governance missteps that led to egregious examples of greed-driven shortsightedness.

Research studies and white papers on the subject also proliferate, at least as fast and as often as politicians blaming their predecessors for current problems.

Here are a few that have made their appearance recently:

  • The Conference Board released the results of a survey yesterday on the future of corporate giving programs. Corporate giving officers are noticing their companies are concerned about their overall financial health when considering the allotment of their philanthropy dollars. Not surprising. But remember, public expectations about behavior -- and the punishment it inflicts on transgressors -- are not significantly influenced by random acts of kindness no matter how generous or strategic.
  • Yesterday, the Rotman/AIC Institute for Corporate Citizenship also released what it calls "a real-world guide that helps business leaders understand and prioritize key social and environmental issues and identify opportunities as well as potential risks." Called 'What's a CEO to do?", it is described as a toolkit and is built on a model introduced by Rotman School of Management dean, Roger Martin, called the "virtue matrix" which he wrote about in HBR a few  years ago. I haven't had a chance yet to do a deep dive into it, but Rotman often produces worthwhile management frameworks. (Disclosure . . . I have an M.B.A. from Rotman.)
  • The third is truly timely . . . an article in the Deloitte Review called "The Responsible and Sustainable Board. (Sorry I can't find a link to it but it is Issue #4, 2009). It includes a warning to boards of directors that "Even if your organization is disinclined to tackle CR&S issues voluntarily, you may ultimately have no choice if, as expected, regulatory requirements take hold." 

Maybe there will be some kind of retrenchment back into the philosophy of 'the business of business is business'. (Simply wishful thinking on the part of cave-dwellers?) Evidently though it doesn't stop the think tanks from thinking about it.

It should be unnecessary after so many years of the corporate responsibility (CR) "movement" -- if it is right to call it that -- to have to jump to its defense and provide arguments for why CR makes a difference. But the harrumphing of the troglodytes has started again, this time under the pretext of determining whether our wretched global economy will cause companies to re-think CR actions and investments.

In one of those dismissive, glib pieces favored by business journalists when writing about CR, Stefan Stern of the Financial Times (registration required) writes from Davos "Thank goodness, now the recession’s here we can forget all that nonsense about corporate social responsibility (CSR) and get back to trying to make some money." Canada's own Terence Corcoran followed suit in his remarks to a recent panel on CR reported in one of Canada's national newspapers.

Communications professional Paul Seaman takes up the discussion in his blog and comes down somewhere in between supporting the preeminent goal of business to make profit yet recognizing that "Traditional values and professional ethics will become highly valued virtues and the true measure of corporate responsibility."

More often than not, the critics use ideology rather than evidence to back up their arguments. They ignore books like Lynn Sharp Paine's exhaustive study of the financial benefits of responsible conduct called Value Shift (Sharp Paine is the John G. McLean professor of business administration at Harvard Business School), or a recent study published in MIT's Sloan Management Review called Does it Pay to be Good? The conclusion of this study by two professors at Canada's Ivey School of Business about consumer behaviour and sustainability:

"Yes customers will pay a premium for ethically produced goods. Conversely, they will punish companies (by demanding a lower price) that are not seen as ethical. The punishment exacted is greater than the premium customers are willing to pay. Companies need to be 100% ethical to be rewarded."

Detractors like Stern and David Henderson (author of Misguided Virtue: False Notions of Corporate Social Responsibility) also don't seem to be able to make the connection between the frequent lapses in ethical judgment of some senior executives and the idea that "profit" at any cost -- without the filter of some moral or ethical framework (a basic tenet of corporate responsibility especially as it relates to governance)-- can be a precursor to greed. And look at what unrestrained greed has wrought today.

Will there be a step back from good governance, social engagement, committed citizenship, defense of human rights, product innovation driven by environmental concerns, willing social and environmental problem identification and resolution, and efforts by companies to control their GHG emissions? I doubt it. Why would companies set aside years of building reputation capital (an intangible with enormous financial value) for a short-term retreat from responsible conduct? Why would senior executives look on now as an appropriate time to set aside public concerns, when trust in many of them has eroded even further over the past six months and led to precipitous government and regulatory action?

Bruce Sewell, posting on Intel's CSR blog from Davos, (disclosure . . . my company's client although I don't work on the account) made this observation about the mood of the meetings: "Gone was the patina of entitlement, replaced instead with a palpable sense that at some profound level this collection of bankers, regulators and politicians had failed to read the writing on the wall, and for that omission the world as we know it will pay a stiff price."

The CR "movement" can only benefit from a flight from entitlement, from some sense of guilt about transgressions, from a recognition that a "stiff price" may be exacted from those who don't take care to act responsibly . . . or are dismissive.