Colin Crooks, chief executive of Green-works, argues that CSR should be maintained during good times and bad
Corporate social responsibility is not a 'nice to have' that becomes a sacrificial lamb in a cost cutting exercise. There are very good reasons why companies have invested heavily in their reputations as caring, considerate employers and responsible members of society. So a business that cuts programmes now, when times are tough, demonstrates only one thing - that it is not the self-proclaimed stalwart of the community and committed long term partner, as so lovingly portrayed in its annual report. It is, instead, a fair-weather friend.
CSR is now a familiar term in our business vocabulary. It acknowledges the greater responsibility that comes with the massively increased power wielded by corporate organisations in the global, privatised economy. As governments move out of more aspects of service delivery, so the requirement for private business to engage fully in the public agenda increases. As companies 'off-shore' their services to lower cost economies, so paradoxically they are increasingly called to account in the home country to make a bigger contribution locally.
Until now, companies have been happy to make that contribution and take the accompanying plaudits. It has become the norm for corporate organisations to represent themselves as caring employers, responsible environmental citizens and generous supporters of local and/or less fortunate communities. We've even started believing it - with health and wellbeing programmes and matched funding for employee fundraising. Community days with teams of volunteers from banks, law firms or insurance companies getting their hands dirty clearing out canals or painting walls provide team building opportunities, give staff a feel good factor and provide friendly copy for the employee newsletter, local paper or annual report.
The proud employees who work for these organisations will undoubtedly take a very dim view of any moves to cut back on such programmes just when they are needed most. They are currently bombarded by media messages about corporate greed and mismanagement, and seek reassurance that their employer is not like the others. They want to know that it is worth putting in extra hours, handling stress or even taking on the additional workload involved in steering the ship through the storm. Their passion for the business, its integrity and its values is what will get them (and their employers) through. Organisational values are meaningless as statements at the front of the employee handbook, or on a Powerpoint slide in the induction programme. They only come alive when experienced or witnessed.
INTEGRAL TO POLICY
Any review of CSR commitments should not focus on cost saving but on their effectiveness. The global recession is prompting us all to rethink our business models, reassess risks, reduce costs and protect bottom lines. Inevitably, CSR activity will come under scrutiny. Thus, it is important to step back from that cost line on the P&L and consider what CSR really represents.
Corporate social responsibility must be embedded in a company culture more deeply not less. It needs to be fully integrated into the business operation. That is the meaning of integrity. It is as one. CSR creates opportunities to reduce costs and increase impact.
How so? Well, a truly embedded CSR policy means actively seeking services from social enterprises and charities. While there will always be excellent charities that simply need donations there are many which actively raise revenue through trading. By using functional budgets to buy essential goods and services from social enterprises or trading charities, a company will contribute much more than a limited CSR budget ever could.
Every pound spent helps a charitable organisation to do more good work. More important is the wider impact of that spend. Social enterprises, such as Green-works, employ considerable numbers of marginalised people; people who have struggled to get work due to illness, homelessness or imprisonment. By creating work with a commercial value for such people, social enterprises can restore their self-worth and confidence. Feeling valued and being confident are the two biggest assets we can give to people anywhere.
The multiplier effect works just as powerfully in the social and environmental economy as it does in the financial economy. Every pound invested in CSR activities has multiple benefits and the impact can be out of all proportion to the cost. Witness the people who, after many years of unemployment, have found meaningful employment; witness the people in Africa overjoyed at the donation of redundant furniture from a bank, witness the fun and comradeship engendered through an employee sponsored walk to raise funds for something they all care about.
With a fully embedded sense of corporate and social responsibility, not only would companies purchase from social enterprises and charities but they would encourage employees to volunteer in them; sharing their expertise or their physical labour, and opening their eyes on another world.
At its most fundamental level, volunteers gain an insight into the world of the socially disadvantaged, the disabled or the unemployed that enables them to better appreciate their own positions. They also have an opportunity to share their skills and experience in a meaningful way, and actually see the benefits that this can bring.
BRINGING ENGAGEMENT TO LIFE
During tough times, it is difficult to give employees the 'feel good factor' that significantly impacts on creativity, job satisfaction and productivity. Proactively purchasing goods and services from social enterprises and supporting employees to engage in CSR activities provides this opportunity.
Knowing how much their company has donated to charity will make employees feel good, but it will not make them set their alarm an hour earlier or go the extra mile to win a new account, even if there are nice pictures of the smiling beneficiaries in the staff newsletter. CSR is about making the company's engagement come alive for its employees, as much as it is about benefiting the recipient community, the environment or charity.
Corporate social responsibility is a set of values that are shared by all employees and customers. Values are constant and not fickle. A CSR policy should consider how to live these values and maintain integrity, in good times and bad. It should demonstrate that we are true citizens and not fair-weather friends.
Green-works is a Queen's Award winning environmental social enterprise which diverts waste office furniture from landfill through re-sale, remanufacturing and recycling.