Corporate Social Responsibility 2×2 conversation

I want to thank Brad Googins, the Executive Director of Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, and Steve Rochlin, Head of AccountAbility North America, for commenting on my post on Corporate Social Responsibility.

This is the beginning of the conversation I’d like to see more of, namely:

Does the progress that has been made so far in CSR (on diversity and volunteerism and Environment, Health and Safety) give us hope for a future with a different kind of corporation (one that makes real progress on green initiatives, supply chain, serving the “base of the pyramid,” building fuel-efficient cars, etc. etc. etc.)?  Or will we always be stuck nibbling around the edges, never getting to real change in the “center” of the enterprise, its goals, standards, and how it makes decisions.

What do YOU think?

The Corporate Social Responsibility 2-by-2

Nathanial Whittmore, who writes a great blog at, posted yesterday about Brad Googins’ response to Barack Obama’s inauguration speech (Brad runs the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College).  Nathanial was very enthusiastic about Brad’s call for corporations to step up to their citizenship responsibilities in the midst of the current crisis.

Brad’s post makes some sweeping claims, including, “Indeed, a great deal of rethinking and recalibrating corporate responsibility has been taking place, positioning citizenship at the heart of the enterprise.”

Reflecting on the years I worked in CSR (some of them collaborating closely with Brad and his colleagues at the BCCC), I have to disagree.  Outside of a very few organizations that were founded around a mission (like the Body Shop before it was bought by L’Oreal), I do not agree that citizenship is at the heart of the enterprise for 99.9% of enterprises.

So while I applaud Brad’s exhortation, I worry that now is the time when we’ll see less, not more, progress by corporations in CSR.

Looking at the evolution in corporate behavior and expectations around that behavior over the last two decades, my hope is that there’s a slow but inexorable pull of rising expectations – reflected especially in the progress in diversity initiatives, environmental responsibility, more strategic philanthropy and volunteerism, etc.

But my fear is that the vast majority of corporations are not ready or willing to make real tradeoffs in order to “do good” for the world, and that, in times of economic hardship, CSR becomes a “nice to have” that drops off the list.

I wrote about Nike a little while back, just one example of why I’m skeptical about many CSR efforts.   My fear is that very little progress has been made in areas that are hard to tackle and which involve real tradeoffs.  In fact, with all of the CSR standards out there (ISO 26000, the Global Reporting  Initiative, the UN Global Compact), it strikes me that there’s not a lot of straight talk about where the dial has and has not been moved in CSR.

This got me thinking about a 2 by 2 matrix of CSR – with impact on the world on one axis and level of tradeoffs on the other.  I took a stab at sketching this out:


There’s nothing definitive about this picture, and it’s only meant to be illustrative.  But one has to acknowledge that, thanks to changes in attitudes and expectations, we’ve made some good progress on the left-hand side of the graph (where the tradeoffs are low, and the impact ranges from low to high): the recognition that, for example, reducing energy consumption will be good business and good for the world; or that a more diverse workforce – and programs that support it – is the right thing to do and a great way to attract and keep more talented employees.

But if CSR is “at the heart of the enterprise,” and if, as Brad Googins quotes, Lee Scott, the Chief of WalMart, told the Retail Federation, “There is no conflict between delivering value to shareholders and helping solve bigger societal problems,” then we’d see a lot of movement on the right-hand side of the graph.

And, in most cases, I’m seeing no movement at all.

I have no idea what “DA and Operator Services” are

Here’s the text from some SPAM I got yesterday:

[You’re invited to a] special conference that will focus on defining new strategies to not only sustain current DA and Operator Services operations, but to generate new directions for future revenue growth.  We believe our industry is on the cusp of a major paradigm shift.  These two days will be dedicated to spelling out how DA and Operator Services organizations can benefit from that change and provide an exclusive forum unparallel in networking opportunities.

I have no idea how I got on this list, and I had to read it over three times to figure out what “DA and Operator Services” means.

Clearly I never should have received this email.  These folks bought a list and spammed people.  First, they’ve violated the core tenet of permission marketing, which Seth Godin describes as “Anticipated, personal and relevant messages delivered to people who actually want to get them.”  But that’s not my point here.

Instead, I’d like you to ask yourself: how often do I say or write sentences that are the equivalent of “This special conference will focus on defining new strategies to…sustain current DA and Operator Services?”  You know, sentences like, “Our M&E team’s analysis showed significant impacts on women’s empowerment indicators and childhood mortality statistics in line with our broader pursuit of the MDGs.”  Huh????

Language defines who’s in and who’s out.  There’s someone out there for whom “DA and Operator Services is self-explanatory.”  That person ain’t me.

There’s also someone who knows what M&E (“monitoring and evaluation”) and the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) are.  But that person probably isn’t most people, and you have to be very conscious of when you are and are not speaking to a specialized audience.

In truth, even the people who get the acronyms would benefit from you speaking clearly and using plain English.  Acronyms and industry-speak are usually a crutch, and there’s almost always someone in the room who’s too timid to admit that they don’t know the acronyms and what they mean.

Better yet, you might discover that writing (or speaking) in a way that most people will understand forces you to sharpen your own thinking AND makes you a better communicator to boot.

(Oh, and if you’re desperate to go to the “DA and Operator Services” conference, let me know.  I’ve got all the details.)

Living like your best years are in front of you

Speaking of yoga, when I first started taking yoga classes a decade ago, I had a teacher named Rolf Gates who started his professional life as an Army Ranger (the army equivalent of the Navy Seals) [pls see comments below; this isn’t exactly right, apparently, but it’s close].  One day, Rolf made the point in a class that, for those of us who played a sport seriously, we often treat physical activity as if our peak days were behind us.  For the high school or college athletes, we trained hard and pushed our bodies back then…now we just totter around the gym, acting like breaking boundaries was a thing of the past.

It’s easy to fall into the same trap professionally – to think that our days (or years) of greatest growth were a decade or two (or three or four) ago, when we were in a structured university environment surrounded by great minds who pushed us every day.

What about now?  We might learn incrementally, take a training course here and there…but the breakthroughs, the “ah hah!” moments?  Those are in the past.

Or are they?  You can have a professional life surrounded by great, inspiring people who push you every day.  And those great, inspiring people don’t have to be people with fancy degrees and lots of letters after their names.  Instead, you have the opportunity, right now, to start listening to people and to their stories – the people you work with, the customers you serve, maybe the person you pass every day to whom you just say “hello.” If you take the time to open a conversation, you will learn from these people (and they from you).

And if every day you are learning something, think of where you’ll be a decade from now, and compare that to the person you would have been if you thought your days of greatest growth were behind you.

How busy should you be (the 125% rule)?

Whatever amount of time you set aside for work, you don’t want to be 100% busy.  You don’t want just enough work so you can get it done in the time you’ve set aside.  You want more.

How much more?  Lately I think the right amount is around 125% – that is, having 25% more work to do than you could really get done.

If you handle this in the right way, it forces you to work both smarter and faster: smarter comes from being forced to triage and put the most important things at the top.  Faster comes from learning to spend the right amount of time on things, which means less time for things that are less important (without throwing quality out the window).  Faster also comes from learning to say ‘no’ politely to things that you should say ‘no’ to (e.g. meetings you don’t need to attend); and smarter comes from making time for new things that could be great, knowing that something will be sacrificed in the meantime.

There’s a limit, of course.  200% busy is a disaster…it means the end of your personal time and your sanity, and it’s completely unsustainable.  I started my career as a management consultant with a 200% job.  I learned a ton, but I was always exhausted, I essentially sacrificed my personal life, and I never could have kept that up for the decades it takes to build a career.  And 25% is mind-numbingly boring (it’s possible – I actually had a job that devolved into this), not to mention you’ll never produce enough to get anywhere professionally.

So if you’re at 100% and have been asked to do more, take advantage. Don’t be afraid to work hard. And if you haven’t been asked to do more, find somewhere to jump in and do more.

What does 125% feel like?  It feels like (usually) controlled chaos…”usually” because there are always ebbs and flows, so if you’re normally at 125% you’ll have some 150% peaks that are very hard to manage.  125% is a little overwhelming, but it’s also exciting.  You’re stretched, you’re pushed, you’re learning.   And you’ll discover that you can get a lot more done than you thought possible.

(Oh, and if you hadn’t noticed, this is part of the reason that having a job you hate makes it very hard to be very successful.  Success comes from a lot of things, but hard work is part of the answer.  Think about how painful it is to work really hard for 10, 20, or 30 years at something you basically dislike or don’t care much about.)

Man on Wire: in defense of beauty

Philippe Petit walks between the Twin Towers
Philippe Petit walks between the Twin Towers

Yesterday I finally got to see “Man on Wire,” the wonderful,  superlative-defying documentary about Philippe Petit, who illegally strung a wire between the two World Trade Center towers in 1974 and then walked across the 450 foot span between the towers, 1,350 feet above the ground.

I was left with two specific reflections from the film.  The first was that when Philippe came down – handcuffed – from his 45 minutes on a wire more than 100 stories high, he was repeatedly asked “Why did you do it?”

His response was, approximately, “I just created something singular, something of beauty, something that has never been seen and never will be seen again, and all people can think to ask is why I did it!”  It’s a helpful reminder that we do not always need a ‘why’ for everything, that beauty and inspiration themselves are enough of an answer sometimes.

My second reflection was about people and roles that are needed to create something truly spectacular.  Philippe plays the part of the entrepreneur whose vision and passion are so captivating and inspiring that people are pulled to him and offer up their support – because they want to be part of something great.  These other people don’t need to be – and probably shouldn’t be – entrepreneurs.

Philippe’s counterpart is his friend Jean-Louis Blandeau, whose job is to be the naysayer, the guy who pressure-tests the plans, the person who butts heads with Philippe but who ultimately has Philippe’s complete trust and respect.  Jean-Louis is part of a crew of 8 people who play a part in this triumph, and it served to remind me that to do something great, you generally don’t want a gaggle of entrepreneurs (or, for that matter, any group of people with the same characteristics).

There are different roles that need to be filled and part of each of our individual challenges and opportunities is to be self-aware enough to know what role we are most suited to play, and then to become as good as possible at playing that role — while still leaving plenty of space to stretch ourselves from time to time.

Why I’m making a donation to Dave Farmar

I’ve never met Dave Farmar, and he’s never met me.  He’s a yoga teacher in Denver who has a free podcast which, if you’ve got a strong yoga practice, I recommend highly.

Dave puts these podcasts out into the world, and I’m practical enough to understand that he does this both to be generous and as a way of raising his own visibility.  At the same time, Dave isn’t asking for anything in return for the 20-30 of his yoga classes of his that I’ve done in the last year, and that’s exactly why I feel like I should give a donation to him or to a charity he supports (and blogging about it is a great way to ensure that I follow through).

I spend a lot of time on this blog encouraging more generosity, and it occurs to me that part of this process has to be me cultivating my own generosity in tangible ways – big and small.

The trick here is the dreaded Free Rider problem.  It’s downright irrational to pay for things where you can get the benefit without paying the cost (the classic example is national defense or a clean environment; but you can free ride by not voting in a national election too).

How do we act when no one is looking AND where it makes sense – economically, rationally – to do nothing?

The same question came up today when I went with my family to the Museum of Natural History.  The teller told us that the price was $47, and he kept on saying, “But that’s just a suggested admission.  How much do you want to pay?”  In a situation like that, with the teller essentially saying, “Hey, most everyone pays a lot less than this,” it’s hard not to feel silly saying, “No, I’d rather pay the $47.”  And, in all candor, if it hadn’t been for my wife’s encouragement, I’m not sure I would have paid the full “suggested admission” of $47.  It felt like a lot of money, and the teller – who was trying to be nice – was encouraging me to take a pass and spend the money on something else.

(footnote: the museum was fabulous.  Definitely worth the $47.)

My point is not that I’m some paragon of generosity — it’s something I struggle with as much as anyone.  My point is that we’re all have to practice being more generous, especially in situations where it doesn’t make rational sense to do so.  Donate or not, I’ll continue to have access to Dave Farmer’s great yoga classes for free; the Museum of Natural History will get most of its funding from corporations and other major donors and doesn’t need my $47; and Barak Obama would have become President even if I hadn’t voted for him.

But if we don’t put our money where our mouth is — if we don’t step up and support things that are good and beautiful and hopeful in the world — we have no right to complain when we treated ungenerously in return.

And, increasingly, I believe that giving, generosity, kindness, forgiveness and hope are, first and foremost, acts of self-expression.  And, as we’ll see on January 20th, millions of small acts of self-expression can make historical change in the world.

Enjoy the innaguration.

Mind the Gap (Something for something)

A reader emailed me with information on this entry from the BusinessToolsBlog, Donate to Charity with Your Mouse, Not your Wallet.  You click on links and the charities get money.  The reader asked me if I agreed that this was a promising way for people to get involved in and support organizations they might not know about – specifically because  people could support charities without much effort, and over time this would introduce them to the idea of being more philanthropic.

I’m torn about this. On one hand, there’s an economic value in just about everything you do online, so if someone wants to take that value and transfer it to charitable organizations I think that’s a very good thing.  And there is the distant possibility that by coming across one of these sites, someone might learn about a new organization and get involved in a more significant way.

But I’m unconvinced that this will open many people up to giving and to supporting organizations with their time and energy.  To the contrary, I worry that this reinforces the notion that you can get something for nothing, that change can come without effort and sacrifice.

This is the same hesitation I feel about the Gap’s Inspi(RED) t-shirts and other products that make donations to worthy causes – happy that the money is going to the cause; hopeful that the act of buying the shirts (or the water or the cereal) is educating people about and motivating them to act to support the cause; but worried that we might delude ourselves into thinking that this is enough – worried that buying the “responsible” shirt acts as a salve on our sense of responsibility to others, and worried that when doing something “good” becomes a fashion statement, we can loose sight of the impact in favor of the fashion.

And, by the way, here’s what the NY Times reported last February about the RED campaign:

In its March 2007 issue, Advertising Age magazine reported that Red companies had collectively spent as much as $100 million in advertising and raised only $18 million. Officials of the campaign said then that the companies had spent $50 million on advertising and that the amount raised was $25 million. Advertising Age stood by its article.

You see how tricky this gets once you get into the details.

It strikes me that buying is one thing, giving is another.  As long as they are complementary we’re in good shape.

But I worry they might be substitutes.

Kiva and Acumen overhead ratios redux

Sean Stannard-Stockton picked up my post Why overhead ratios are meaningless for Kiva and Acumen Fund in his Tactical Philanthropy Blog, and in reading his summary of my post I realized that I wasn’t as clear as I could have been in the original post.

I was trying to make two separate points, and I think I mixed them together:

  1. For any nonprofit whose main activity is NOT grantmaking, “operational efficiency” ratios (“how much do you spend on overhead?”) don’t mean much.

Here’s the math:  “Nonprofit Grantmaker” has a $10 annual budget.  It spends $1 on “administration,” $1 on raising money, $2 on paying its “program staff”, and $6 on grants.  According to nonprofit math, this organization spends 20% on overhead and 80% on programs.

But what if “Nonprofit That Invests Instead” spends the same amount on administration, raising money and program staff, but instead of $6 in grants it makes $6 in loans?  Nonprofit That Invests is spending 50% of its budget on “overhead” (Its annual budget is now $4, not $10.  The $6 stays on its balance sheet as an asset and is not part of the operational budget).

So even without getting into any discussions about whether loans are more or less effective ways of deploying philanthropic capital, we can agree that there’s no substantive difference between the “efficiency” of these two nonprofits, despite what the ratios say.

The solution?  The onus is on the Kivas and Acumens of the world to reframe this.  And unfortunately this probably requires some heavy lifting because until 990 tax forms explain this clearly, it will continue to feel like fancy footwork explaining “why we’re different.”

2. The second point is not limited to Kiva or Acumen Fund, though I do think our business models shine a brighter light on this question: what is the “core” work of an organization like Kiva or Acumen Fund, and what is “overhead?”

The question Matt Flannery posed on the Kiva blog was whether it makes sense that the engineer who writes the code for Kiva’s website – which in turn connects people to the issue of poverty in the developing world and motivates them to put their capital to work for microfinance customers – is “overhead” (read: bad, inefficient, should be minimized) vs. the person who interacts directly with the microfinance organizations that Kiva works with?  I for one think it makes no sense at all.

And my broader point is that you cannot successfully answer this question without grappling with your own theory of change.

This is why I gave the Grameen vs. BRAC example, and argued that large-scale, paradigm-shifting change happens as the result of lots of influencing activities which, according to traditional nonprofit math, are “overhead” and, therefore, inefficient and to be avoided.  The whole thing seems pretty a**-backwards to me.

The bar is rising

The more people I talk to who have recently lost their jobs, the more I see how challenging it will be to find new, meaningful work in the current economy.  The good news is that this won’t last forever, and if you’ve always thought that you might make some sort of shift – whether into the non-profit sector or otherwise – this economic mess might just be enough to jump-start you move in another direction.

Now’s the time to lay the groundwork for that next move, even if it is three, six, or more months out.  If you can, volunteer, start that pet project you’d always meant to do, roll up your sleeves, meet people, make yourself stand out from all the other people who were swept up in this economic tsunami.

On the flip side, if you still have your job, don’t forget that the bar is rising.  Those hundreds of thousands of Wall Street types who are out of work?  (who I blogged about here)   They are hungry and skilled and aggressive and networked.  Now is a great time to raise your own game and be even more indispensable.

(OK, in truth, you should always be indispensable, and especially if you are in a mission-driven organization, why would you be there in the first place if you’re not passionate about what you do?)

But now’s the time to dig deeper, to over-promise and then over-deliver.  Now’s the time to make your co-workers’ lives easier, to roll up your sleeves, to burn the midnight oil.  Now’s the time to lead.

Laying low and hoping you’re not noticed is a horrible life strategy.  But right now, in particular, it might also be the best way to lose your job.