Want better CSR? Companies should try good old-fashioned resourcefulness

If private sector leaders use old-fashioned resourcefulness to analyze their assets, they will discover surprising new ways to do good, writes Kara Gerson, executive director of the Voss Foundation, which provides clean water access in sub-Saharan Africa. Photo by: FACE Africa

Corporate social responsibility is a term thrown around with a lot of enthusiasm these days, but not a lot of clarity.

As an international development executive with a personal passion for public-private partnerships, I believe CSR is too often considered as a charitable add-on, a narrowly defined marketing function segregated from the rest of the business.

While many corporations are now actively seeking to take responsibility for their social impact, I see other companies hesitate to get involved. I think that’s because, in many cases, companies don’t understand which of their key assets can be deployed elegantly in support of the greater good.

CSR is most strategic and effective when it comes naturally to a company, meaning that it draws on core competencies. That kind of alignment is why brands like TOMS Shoes, FEED Projects, Maiyet, or Warby Parker, who have incorporated social responsibility into their core from the get-go, are so beloved by their customers.

These companies are also the examples trotted out most often at the conferences I attend. And who rolls their eyes or tunes out? Those who don’t make a product that can be manufactured in a developing country, or whose business model does not allow for a one-for-one donation system or an innovation in profit-making that also serves a social good. And who would blame them?

It’s easy for corporations to look warily at companies with CSR integrated into their very reason for being. “My company started years before this CSR buzz began, when we just wanted to sell good widgets and make a decent profit on them,” I hear them say. “If CSR means overhauling our corporate mission, the board will never agree to it.” And then management will usually decide just to allocate some marketing money “for charity,” or forgo CSR altogether. What a shame.

There are, in fact, many other ways for a corporation to integrate CSR into its business. The best way to start is to take an all-inclusive and analytic view of what it does best.

First, a company can start with the basics. If it manufactures or sells a product, it can make sure its products are made responsibly, that they don’t pollute the environment, waste resources, exploit slave or child labor, etc. Or, if a business sells a service, it can make sure it follows international best practices and regulations.

Addressing these “do no harm” issues is an important initial step, but companies can do so much more.

Corporations could see if their services or products could be recycled for use in international development projects or for charitable purposes. Are they in possession of commodities that are quickly obsolete in sophisticated markets but would be of use to developing ones? On a micro scale, I admire the international fast-food sandwich shop Pret A Manger for donating their unsold food locally to the hungry at the end of every business day.

Are there other byproducts of services that are being wasted? Undoubtedly. I believe the corporate world has only begun to scratch the surface.

Countless companies say their greatest resources are their people. But who are these people and what can they offer? The major auction houses often generously lend out their auctioneers at no charge for charity auctions. Many major law firms require or at least allow their attorneys to take on pro bono clients. We may take these charitable examples for granted now, but they are, in fact, examples of CSR that have gradually become embedded in corporate cultures.

Could your company allow its employees to use their professional skills to help those who need them? IBM employees in developing countries like India and South Africa volunteer their time and partner with local governments and NGOs to use their technology skills, business savvy, and IBM’s products to improve education or tackle other social and economic issues.

The directors of VOSS Water founded the organization I run, Voss Foundation, as an independent 501(c)(3) and not a corporate charity that just donates a percentage of sales. In making this choice, the VOSS directors committed to donating not only cash and office space, but also the efforts of their employees around the world to raising money for and awareness of our mission to provide access to clean water to communities in sub-Saharan Africa.

I admire the VOSS directors for realizing they could contribute more than checks. By recognizing the potential of their employees’ competencies outside of profit making, they helped create a deeper corporate culture of responsibility among their employees globally.

In another case from the beverage industry, Coca-Cola’s 5by20 initiative pledges to empower five million women entrepreneurs throughout Coca-Cola’s global value chain by 2020. By educating women, training them to become micro-distributors and lending them the funds to start their own businesses, Coca-Cola is acknowledging its responsibility in conducting business in developing countries by leveraging its existing knowledge base. This kind of integrated initiative shows the impact a company can have when it thinks holistically about CSR.

When companies look at their supply and distribution chains, they can discover unexpected avenues for CSR. Firestone, the rubber company, makes several containers worth of space available to 501(c)(3) organizations on each cargo ship it sends from the U.S. to Liberia. As someone who has faced many hurdles in getting materials to and from sub-Saharan Africa, I can personally attest to the value of a program like this. Shipping may not be Firestone’s core competency per se, but getting goods into a developing country is integral to their business, and, it turns out, it’s a service and a capability they can share for the greater good.

There are other examples of companies that understand the potential breadth and depth of CSR, that realize they can go beyond just using recycled paper without overhauling their entire corporate structure. But there are not enough.

If corporations are going to see value in being socially responsible entities, they need to realize that responsibility is often just about good old-fashioned resourcefulness. The more creative a CSR program, the more parts of a company it touches, the more likely it is to effect real change, both inside the organization and around the world. That’s something any company can get started on today.

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