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.

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 Change.org, 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.