How to optimize involvement in corporate responsibility coalitions

David Grayson, co-author of a new book on corporate coalitions, explains how companies can engage more strategically.

According to a 2010 Accenture study with the UN Global Compact, 96% of CEOs of compact signatory companies believe sustainability should be embedded in business strategy and operations. Even allowing for this being a self-selecting group (one might expect CEOs of companies who have signed the ten compact commitments to answer in the affirmative), it does show the extent to which corporate responsibility is now accepted across the world.

The growing acceptance of corporate responsibility can be attributed to a number of factors, including the growth in power of multinational corporations as a result of privatization, liberalization and globalization; and the information and communications technology revolution that means business can operate remotely and in difficult terrains (from deep-water mining platforms to the Amazonian rainforests) while being subject to intense global media and social media scrutiny.

Among the drivers of corporate responsibility work are business-led coalitions, such as Business for Social Responsibility and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. There are now over 110 national and international generalist corporate responsibility coalitions, and many hundred more issue-specific or industry-specific ones.

Collectively these coalitions have made the business case for corporate responsibility, identified and disseminated good practices, and provided a vehicle for collaborative business action around sustainable development.

These coalitions rely for their existence and success on the active engagement of many thousands of businesses. Internally, these businesses often focus on the principle of continuous improvement. As corporate responsibility and sustainability becomes more mainstream for business, continuous improvement should include more strategic engagement with the coalitions.

International companies should map the coalitions they are involved in, understand who is now championing that coalition inside their company, and clarify their rationale for continuing membership.

Companies may find their engagement in coalitions tends to fall along a spectrum, from least to most strategic:

  1. historic: no real justification for membership;

  2. passive: membership is part of corporate citizenship;

  3. reactive: engagement is tactical rather than strategic;

  4. reactive but promising: engagement is tactical but membership has potential, for example the coalition  may provide opportunities for senior management team to build personal networks and gain the confidence of key external leaders;

  5. strategic: engagement brings company closer to key market or provides other strategic added value.

To ensure more strategic engagement, companies may want to consider building an internal network of employees who are active in coalitions, so they can share learning and experience about how to optimize the company’s involvement. This knowledge sharing could happen via the company’s intranet as an easy first-step.

Companies not yet active in any corporate responsibility coalitions should consider whether they can afford to continue to miss out on the expertise and networks that these coalitions provide.

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