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Guest blogger Peter Conlon is the founder and CEO of Dublin-based ammado, a global communications and giving platform for socially responsible companies, nonprofits, and engaged individuals. Peter shares his reflections on global CSR after participating in the Responsible Business Summit held in London.
Many may have expected a somewhat sombre tone at the 8th annual Responsible Business Summit. The operating environment has markedly altered since last year’s event, with corporate social responsibility (CSR) coming under severe scrutiny amidst all the budget cuts and job losses of the worldwide financial crisis. However, the resounding feeling at the Summit was a positive one. Daniel Franklin, Executive Editor of The Economist, even described the current CSR environment as refreshing, with less waffle and more seriousness as a result.
But critics of CSR have used the current economic crisis as an opportunity to question its necessity. Over the course of the Summit, three interesting arguments were raised to counter this attack. Firstly, as pointed out by Franklin, a lack of ethics and ethical conflict were at the heart of this recession. Previous corporate irresponsibility now needs to be balanced with an era of corporate responsibility. Trust is also crucial for commercial prosperity. The current recession has damaged consumers’ trust in business. (This finding has been documented in earlier posts, see How consumers are redefining value in a new economy). The third argument is focused on the power of CSR to motivate employees. Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) has been through particularly tough times in recent months. However, Andrew Cave, RBS Head of Corporate Responsibility, makes the case that in tough times it’s even more important to motivate your employees. Even in the face of layoffs, Cave described an environment of support for the bank’s workforce engagement strategies.
Customers and values
Customers were inevitably the focus of many discussions of the practical realities of CSR. There is much evidence to suggest that customers care about a company’s values and are willing to use their purchasing power to reward brands that are good corporate citizens. Many of the speakers touched on both the need to make CSR consumer relevant and the difficulty of doing so.
This problem of relevancy for the consumer is largely attributable to two prominent factors. First, companies often have a large and highly diversified customer base, making it impossible to engage them through the small number of worthy causes that they support. Add to this the difficulty for global companies/brands to orchestrate awareness and engagement on a global level while having meaningful impact on local campaigns and causes.
Second, a company’s CSR efforts have traditionally been presented in an inaccessible and unappealing manner via one-way communication (think annual CSR report). This is beginning to change.
Innovations in technology
Technological advances have much to lend to social campaigns. The Body Shop has run many fantastic, high profile campaigns around issues from women’s self-image, to human trafficking, to AIDS. Jan Buckingham, Body Shop’s Director of Values, envisions how this will all evolve digitally, using the Internet to connect like-minded individuals and move them to mass-action, with the shared cause (and desired outcome) the centerpoint. The Body Shop is looking at online competitions, games, etc. to engage young people in particular.
Interactive technology allows for greater engagement with such campaigns. The Web 2.0 technology available today allows for far more dynamic communication, allowing all stakeholders—customers, employees, and others—to interact with a company’s CSR in new ways.
The value of NGO-Business partnership
In one of the Summit’s panels, we took up these themes in the context of nonprofit-business partnerships. The discussion included the heads of sustainability for Marks & Spencer (retail) and E.ON (energy/utility), and the World Wildlife Fund-UK (WWF). Even with today’s recession, we agreed that relations had improved between business and NPOs from a decade ago.
One of the challenges of a business/NGO partnership is remaining true to your values when revenues are at stake. WWF has created “rules of engagement” or certain criteria that companies need to meet and commit to if WWF is going to work with them. Rather than forcing fits, WWF finds it is much better to be positive and partner with a variety of companies and organizations in a variety of strategies with this guidance.
In developing ammado, I have met with literally thousands of nonprofits and businesses over the past several years. A recurring theme at these meetings, “the holy grail” as it were, is how non-profits can raise money online. By presenting a neutral platform where information and resources can flow freely between companies, nonprofits, and individuals, I am hopeful we have opened the door to more fruitful partnerships, more effective philanthropy, and to the sustainability that’s needed for business and nonprofits. Technology and the Internet are increasingly the “how” of CSR, and integral to good business and social practice.