Good CSR? Bad CSR?

Tom’s article featured on the CBI’s Great Business Debate web site, December 2015:

Business leaders are judged by the image their company creates, not only through their commercial mission but by activities often referred to as ‘CSR’. Although not all CSR is perceived to be ‘good’.

Leaders must decide where their business and values fit into society because ‘Do we make a positive and sustained difference?‘ is a question taking on ever greater political and commercial importance.

So what is poor CSR?

Poor CSR is pure box-ticking, involving employees but not engaging them. It generates no learning and wouldn’t be missed if it ended. Raise money for a Charity of the Year by all means, but use the experience to educate participants about the charity’s mission; if such activity doesn’t help tackle a long term problem it’s a missed opportunity.

Poor CSR is non-core, overseen by a CSR department with little authority or status or a public affairs department dedicated to creating a positive corporate image. Chosen causes bear little connection to the business’ own mission. ‘Downright evil CSR’ deliberately hides a company’s negative impact on the community, human rights or the environment behind a smile and a fluffy image.

Poor CSR reflects the needs of the company’s bottom line rather than any ‘good cause’. For example, a ‘team challenge’ may be more greatly valued for its team-building potential than for its charitable impact. This leads to walls that exist only to be painted by teams of sales personnel. Skilled volunteering is more popular than time volunteering in (time poor) SMEs but when employee numbers rise over 20 skills volunteering appears to fall whilst time volunteering grows. Is this because team building is regarded as the more valuable outcome? An Australian bank scrapped team volunteering after its charitable purpose was eclipsed.

Good CSR, however, makes a difference. It enhances the missions of both company and cause and becomes part of the company culture, building upon synergies and engaging employees meaningfully. Better engagement, where employees share a common purpose in the workplace, is the biggest benefit that good CSR can bring to a company. Good CSR activity is monitored at board level where leaders care about it.

What does good CSR look like?

Good CSR is not just fundraising: it builds capacity and sustainability, over a period, perhaps creating an ongoing relationship to help a partner charity better help itself.

Good CSR is delivered strategically, involving the transfer of skills and ideas from employees to charities and vice versa; developing staff skills in different and challenging circumstances is a bonus and good leaders recognise this. Good CSR may be philanthropic in nature but ‘giving back’ is not the motive; building mutually beneficial relationships is justified by a business case.

It’s a leader’s duty to inspire both those they lead and other stakeholders – bringing purpose to the workplace is part of that process and the myriad benefits of employee engagement follow.

Leaders must take the initiative, deliver ‘good CSR’ in the interests of all concerned – and then enjoy the fruits of enhanced employee engagement, innovation, reputation and partnership working.