CSR 2×2 Redux Part II – What are we really learning?

(Part 2 of 2 on “Should foundation program officers be more like venture capitalists?” is coming soon)

A press release on CSR just came over the transom today, and I read it as validation of the Corporate Responsibility 2×2 post I wrote last week.  Better yet, the release is from the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College, run by Brad Googins (whose blog post was the inspiration for my original post).

The headline of the press release is “New Report Examines How Corporate Citizenship is Organized Inside Global Companies,” and it announces the findings of a survey of 330 global corporations on their corporate citizenship practices.

The release begins, “A new report released by the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship confirms that managing a company’s role in society is becoming a formal part of corporate structure and management practice, with many companies internalizing the function into corporate departments and cross functional teams.”

Wow, OK, that sounds impressive.  Keep reading….

In examining the management systems associated with corporate citizenship, the Boston College researchers contend the field is in an early stage…:

  • Corporate citizenship is not strongly linked to strategy or business plans in most companies
  • Top management identifies corporate citizenship as important but in most companies does not exercise significant leadership on the issue
  • Employees are seen as the most influential stakeholders for citizenship but inside the company are seen as the least informed
  • Boards of directors are just beginning to focus on corporate citizenship issues
  • Measurement and use of measures of corporate citizenship are weak
  • Minimal training is being done at every level on the relevance of citizenship to the success of the business

I don’t get it.

How can the headline be that “managing a company’s role in society is becoming a formal part of corporate structure and management practice” if a main finding of the report is that “corporate citizenship is not strongly linked to strategy or business plans in most companies” and that “top management…does not exercise significant leadership on the issue”??

While I recognize that in every evolving field rhetoric and messaging often run a few steps ahead of practice (hence the term “vaporware” in the technology space).  But the CSR space too often feels mired in wishful thinking about practice.   This runs the risk either of letting companies off too easily or, worse, having the CSR expert community play a supporting role communicating that CSR is front and center on the agenda when in most cases its at the bottom of a “nice to have” list.

Brad Googins’ comment on my blog was that he prefers to “see the glass half full,” and I absolutely agree that companies have made lots of progress in the last 15 years; that making progress is very, very hard; and that continuing on the current trajectory would be a very good thing.  But if we don’t do a better job distinguishing aspiration from reality, the field as a whole will lose credibility and will miss the opportunity to be taken seriously as a management approach for long-term corporate sustainability.

3 thoughts on “CSR 2×2 Redux Part II – What are we really learning?

  1. Good post! While I haven’t (yet) read the report, your analysis of it reminded me of Edward Tufte’s criticism of powerpoint slides at NASA and how they possibly contributed to the Columbia disaster (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Tufte#Criticism_of_PowerPoint) . High level slide titles saying one thing, then the (more complicated, more ominous) details buried in the bullet points. While I’m all for a glass half full approach, I agree with you that it is a disservice if the summary/take away points give a sense of much more progress than is actually happening.

  2. As the founder of a startup, I am currently making foundational decisions in terms of price, profit, transparency, and accountability that will have a big effect on whether we are really following a “triple bottom line” approach. Ok, we are buying organic coffee at a premium price directly from the farmers… but how much should that coffee cost the consumer and why?

    This incorporates an interesting analysis of how transparent I can be about the price, how much is a reasonable profit (one that will allow not just survival but growth.)

    For instance, if the coffee price is $1.80/lb. including both an “organic premium” and a premium above market prices, and a percentage of that price also goes to the farmers’ social and environmental projects, then how much money of each pound of coffee can we tell the consumer goes to social and environmental initiatives (to “help the farmers and the land”)? What if we also add on the huge amounts time and money it will take (and has taken) to work with the farmer to develop the farmers’ association and refine the projects?

    Then, should I charge the lowest possible price to cover costs or should I match Starbucks/Intelligentsia/Stumptown and use that extra to fund growth and have a greater effect on the farmer and his community and allow more flexibility?

    Once these decisions are made, how do you communicate them to the consumer in a precise and accurate way?

    These very basic debates play a big role in laying the groundwork for my business’s “corporate responsibility.” The answers are not easy or obvious but they are not impossible to answer, either… and it is wonderful to have access to these types of online communities that wrestle with related issues.

  3. Interesting post. I wonder whether companies don’t use CSR as window-dressing…when it is convenient for them. Hence I think the movement should not be a substitute for government regulation. I write about this at: thhttp://euandus3.wordpress.com/2009/10/25/corporate-social-responsibility/

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