The launch of CSR Sri Lanka initiative last week filled me with a heavy dose of theories, principles, discussions and debates on the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). These lively discussions have given me food for thought on where we are as a nation on this subject. One thing is crystal clear. And that is, that there is gross confusion between CSR Vs Community Investment (CI), which in laymen’s terms is known as ‘Philanthropy’, Cause Based Marketing and many other such social minded ‘do good’ activities undertaken by our corporates.
It is commendable that our corporates had collectively spent Rs 4 billion during the last financial year on what was labelled as ‘CSR’, be it towards strategic Corporate Responsibility (CR) or simply CI. The challenge now would be for those CEO’s to gradually steer their businesses towards embracing the true practice of CSR while also continuing to invest in the society through their philanthropic work which is known to be a part and parcel of Sri Lankan corporate culture.
While it would take a long time for local businesses to embrace the true principles of CSR in totality, one would hope that those who listened to Prof Wayne Visser at the launch event of CSR Sri Lanka, would start rethinking their current understanding of the core principles of CSR and begin to adapt relevant strategies slowly, systematically and consciously into their own business models.
A grey area that may also need clarity is the impact on the ROI of a company when adapting a sustainable CSR business model. Integrating an M&E criteria into the CSR business model would convince the decision makers on how a well-structured CSR strategy would show a positive ROI for the business.
I thought the five scenarios presented by Prof Visser as different stages of social engagement; defensive stage, charitable stage, promotional stage, strategic stage and transformative stage, would help corporates to see where each company’s social consciousness was placed at present. If nothing else, it would help each decision maker interested in the subject to start an internal dialogue about the understanding on the subject of CSR, share best practices with each other or seek expert advice.
Last week I read an article in the newspapers which questioned why a priest in a remote village who was doing yeoman service by teaching hundred and fifty kids or an eighty five year old businessman who has a foundation to teach IT to village kids are not being recognized for national CSR awards. I also listened to a key note address delivered by a well-respected academic who was giving ideas for ‘CSR Projects’ that companies could embrace. These experiences and ongoing discussions on the subject made me realize the universal confusion that prevailed on this grossly misinterpreted and loosely used term called CSR. One could argue that it is simply semantics. But I think not.
The simple idea that CSR is all about making responsible business decisions integrated to the core business, which in turn leads to sustainable growth is what needs to get internalized as we take this journey forward. It is also important to understand that CSR cannot be a ‘project’ or an ‘activity’ that sits outside of the core business. The importance of CSR making total business sense and adding value to the company’s triple bottom line seems to be somewhat lost amongst some of our corporate leaders.
It was enlightening to listen to the Ambuja Cement case study on their CSR strategy and snippets of Microsoft’s CSR model which clearly illustrated how their holistic corporate CSR strategy impacted on the overall business on the three CSR pillars of People, Planet and Profit. Brandix rationalizing how their CSR strategy has a direct link to their business was also very impressive. The importance of collaborative work and the resilience of time and resources needed to achieve tangible results in the long term were aptly demonstrated by those who knew the power of embracing CSR as the sustainable way of doing business.
It is also heartening to see young entrepreneurs starting ‘transformative’ businesses with a very clear vision and conviction to make a difference to people, planet and profits with their creative and innovative business models. CSR Sri Lanka will no doubt make it their mandate to aggregate these best practices and share with a wider audience using different tools of engagement in the coming days.
In conclusion, the hope is that our corporates will look at businesses that are future fit, by providing solutions to a depleting resource base rather than the problem creators themselves. That’s when the country will be truly proud of its rapid growth and sustainable development.