THE FUTURE OF CSR

Pearl Walsh offers a fresh perspective on how to give back to the community

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The practice of good corporate citizenship is finally maturing. No longer does corporate social responsibility mimic the political pageantry of trying to appear more likeable and responsible by calling the media to bear witness to corporate head honchos posing with sick babies and handing over cheques to organisations that assist those in need. This can only be good for how companies should now be speaking about their CSR initiatives.

Mapping your life through the stock market

At age 14, I landed my first job. I had to. I was born into an impoverished community in Cape Town and knew intuitively that the dauntless task of improving my own life and that of my community was ultimately an individual responsibility. I had to do my part.

I provide this brief biography to stake my claim to having long-standing concern for and involvement in working through what it might take to better the lives of others.

In the time between when I first rolled up my sleeves at 14 and the present, I have witnessed the way corporations envision the role they play in bettering the lives of others. In the beginning, as many a corporate social responsibility (CSR) manager might confess, CSR was seen as almost purely an exercise in public relations.

I witnessed forms of this in the community where I grew up.

Corporates would swoop on a school or a community centre, trailed by a legion of press. They’d pose for photographs, maybe hand over a cheque, plant some trees or paint a few buildings, then they’d leave, never to be heard from again until the next time they needed marketing material to show the world what a good corporate citizen they were.

Sometimes these public relations events—disguised as good corporate citizenship—cost more than what the corporates invested in the communities, but thankfully those cynical days seem but a fading memory. Many heartening trends have begun to emerge in the practice of good corporate citizenship. Firstly, most chief executives now realise that good corporate citizenship is a good business. Full stop. In the same way that no person is an island, equally no company can expect to remain sustainably profitable without ensuring that the communities, natural environments and economies it is linked to through its operations are also being uplifted.

This means the CSR projects in which companies are now looking to get involved in play a strategic role in the operations of the company and form part of the company’s long-term vision for itself, the communities it is linked to and the economy in which it operates.

Because it gives them a competitive edge, companies are also doing more than just complying with the minimum standards required in the JSE listing requirements, the B-BBEE scorecards, and other CSR codes and guidelines. This is especially important as an increasing number of customers are expressing interest in consuming ethically, and new information tools and applications are being created every day to help them do so.

Transparency

There has also been a greater move towards transparency. If you pick up any annual or sustainability report you will see that companies are disclosing a wealth of information on what their CSR programmes do and the measurable impact they have. The very best companies are able to demonstrate using some quantifiable measure, what effect their programmes have had not just in the current reporting period, but also over multiple years.

They are also able to state clearly what vision of the future their CSR programmes are working towards.

These changes, however, do not mean that to be a good corporate citizen you must shy away from communicating the good you are doing. It’s quite the contrary. A good corporate citizen presents the long-term sustainable work it is doing and the impact thereof as a model for others to follow and improve upon, if they dare.

Unfortunately, this final step is what many companies have yet to get right. They keep the exemplary work they are doing hidden in the pages of a sustainability report or a subsection of their website. The reasons for this are understandable. The cynicism with which CSR programmes were communicated when they were first introduced means that even the companies who are getting it right are now too reticent to toot their own horn.

This fear might be just what is keeping alive the bad memories the public has of the early days of CSR. To complete the evolution of CSR as a practice for the future, those businesses that are getting it right should let go of this fear and dare to stick their heads above the parapet.

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