The real CSR debate: why aren’t we helping practitioners?

Economist Edward Glaeser’s recent New York Times blog posting on “how ethical should businesses be?” is yet another example of the disconnection between public debate and what companies really need: help with implementation.

While briefly surveying arguments for and against CSR, Glaeser allows that “Even the harshest critics of corporate social responsibility are not advocates of sacrificing long-term profits by acting unethically today,” but quickly moves on to the “hard problems” of defining corporate roles beyond profit-maximization, as if companies already had the win-win items covered.

Not so fast.  According to recent research by Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship, most corporations have not yet integrated CSR with their sales, marketing, HR, government affairs, or other core functional areas.  Corporate citizenship practitioners remain siloed and under-resourced, and still struggle to operationalize the classic CSR win-win.  As usual, implementation is more easily said than done.

What’s needed – at least until sustainability and corporate responsibility become part of mainstream corporate culture and decisionmaking – is greater cross-functional interaction, so CSR managers can tap and guide the expertise within their companies to identify and operationalize opportunities.

Identification is important because there is no “one size fits all” list of strategic CSR programs: a volunteer program may develop new, relevant skills for one type of company and not another; a ride-sharing or telecommuting policy may significantly increase productivity and reduce environmental impact for one type of industry and not another; a cause-marketing program may give a significant boost to one type of product but not another.

Simply getting the relevant functional managers at the table to review or brainstorm ideas can be a surprisingly easy way to identify truly relevant and impactful opportunities (often involving only minor adjustment or coordination of existing activities).  And if these opportunities are truly a win-win, then everyone will be motivated to help operationalize them.

For CSR managers struggling to make progress within their companies, try one step at a time.  Develop a relationship with the recruiting department and see if any of your community engagement activities or sponsorships can be designed to attract the attention of potential recruits, or create opportunities to interact with and better vet current candidates.  The results (and ROI) of any program you agree on can usually be monitored and measured through minor adjustments to existing application tracking systems or new-hire interviews.

Or start with marketing, or professional development, or any other department that your programs might be able to help.

Meanwhile, don’t get too distracted by public “debates” over CSR.  They may be intellectually interesting, but often they offer little assistance in creating real value: that is, actually implementing this stuff.

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