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:

csr-2-by-21

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.