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Out of Our Minds
Wednesday, October 19, 2005 1:19 AM
Where CSR Gets Stuck
David Batstone on Business

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) no longer finds itself on the margins of the business roundtable. Nearly every corporate executive pays it lip service - a fact that leads to both good and bad implications. To say that CSR has become mainstream, on the other hand, would be a vast exaggeration. CSR in truth finds itself floating in liminal space, meaning it is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Rather than ponder philosophically on the reason for this state, allow me a practical turn. Based on my engagement in the business world, I have uncovered five places that CSR most typically gets stuck inside a company. Every CSR proposal worth its salt should address effectively these five obstacles before pitching a corporate responsibility proposal.

Roadblock #1 - A Country without Borders Falls off the Map

CSR can mean so many different things - sustainable development, fair labor agreements, partnership with local communities, environmental standards, and on and on. Proposals with the label CSR attached therefore can get bogged down because the change agent fails to express how far the initiative intends to reach. As one exasperated executive shared with me much, 'Where does this CSR stuff end, anyway?' It's that clear: offer a beginning, a middle (process) and an end. The more refined and specific a proposal, the better its chances to move through the gauntlet of corporate decision making.

Roadblock #2 - When No One Picks Up the Check\n\nA friend of mine in the 'CSR business' lamented to me the other day that she found herself stuck in a familiar situation. As an outside consultant, she had put together a very compelling CSR proposal for a company. But once it came time to attach figures to the project budget - how much it would cost and from where the funds would come - progress came to a screeching halt. The company had no budget line for this kind of effort. Was it branding/marketing, or corporate relations, or even communications? The company reps predictably asked the consultant to solve the problem; she was to devise a way to meet the project goals while dramatically cutting the budget. In order to save myself and internal corporate staff time and effort, I now put this at the top of the agenda at my first meeting. Who will pick up the check, and with what limitations?\n\nRoadblock #3 - We Already Gave to the United Way\n\nAll too often a social responsibility project gets framed as a 'philanthropic' endeavor for the company. Once that happens, the project will not be taken seriously. Even the most open-minded manager needs to understand how a proposed change will help solve an operational problem, enhance a customer experience or mitigate a legal risk. We are in dire need of senior managers who have the vision and courage to make good choices when the pay-off may not be immediately apparent on the balance sheet, certainly. But they need to be convinced that doing the Right Thing will have a positive effect on their firms' bottom line, or at least will not add to the cost of doing business. \n\nRoadblock #4 - There's No One Behind the Wheel \n\nChange can begin from anywhere in the corporation. But to make a major impact on a company, an initiative needs the enthusiastic backing of leaders at the executive level. They have the means to introduce new practices across the company and the responsibility to govern their execution. \n\nRoadblock #5 - Make It Real \n\nIf you can't measure it you can't account for it. That's precisely the reason why efforts to translate principles into corporate practices so often languish at the point of execution. Most senior managers today do feel an escalating pressure to conform to higher standards of social responsibility. But if they cannot understand how to identify and measure their outcomes, managers are likely to consider principles a matter of image, not substance.\n\nIn general, CSR gets stuck when its advocates fail to balance the short-term interests of the individual company for competitive advantage with a long-term strategy that will uniquely position the company with customers and investors.

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