In my early days as a nonprofit fundraiser, I used to think that corporations have a moral and ethical obligation to donate. After all, donating money was the least they could do to fix decades of discriminatory hiring practices and inadequate working conditions, for example.
Over the years however, I've been fortunate to listen in on conversations among those very companies and learn from them. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) begins to look a lot different after digging a bit deeper and taking into account the multiple stakeholders a company must report to.
Recently, I had the opportunity to join members of Net Impact Chicago for a discussion with James Epstein-Reeves, the founder and president of Chicago-based cause marketing firm Do Well Do Good and hosted by Boeing.
The topic: Trends, myths and realities of CSR.
Calling them the "gospel of CSR," Epstein-Reeves proceeded to offer three commandments:
Verse 1: CSR is Not Philanthropy
For me this was the most important part of the conversation because I was once that doubtful fundraiser who thought corporate giving should be the 'responsibility' of a corporation.
A responsible company is supposed to follow EEOC laws, protect the environment, and be transparent with their investors. Philanthropy was their "above and beyond" exercise.
Not so. Epstein-Reeves rightfully argued that a company should have multiple strategies that make it responsible, with corporate giving being just one of many. Some companies are better than others of course but philanthropy alone does not make a company responsible.
But nor are companies designed to be responsible, which brings us to the second verse.
Verse 2: Businesses exist to make Profits, Not Create World Peace
Nonprofit fundraisers often have a hard time accepting that ultimately a company exists to make a profit. Therefore, while there are many worthwhile organizations and causes, they are all assessed on the same quotient: What business value do you bring to the table.
Today, this has developed into brand association. Whether companies partner with a nonprofit or create groundbreaking supply chain management processes, they are concerned with building a stronger and more recognizable brand. This pursuit of positive brand association then leads to increased profits. There aren't many studies that draw a direct line between corporate responsibility and increased revenue, but Epstein-Reeves' survey indicated that consumers support companies who are more socially responsible than others.
Recognizing the increasing number of hybrid business models, the truth still holds that most, if not all, businesses are created to make money.
You just have to figure out your place in the system.
Verse 3: Good CSR is Embedded in Company Values
In other words, doing good for society and the environment should be a part of the day-to-day operations of the company, not just a marketing slogan.
Working with integrity and respect, being fair, and being mindful of your impact on the world, should be something that's shared throughout the company. According to Epstein-Reeves, all critical business decisions should be driven by a company's core values.
Your ability to put words into actions will determine how responsible your company really is regardless of what you do for the environment, labor practices or social good.
Call it gospel or just a replay of practical, reliable standards, but Epstein-Reeves' verses have given me a new understanding of the complexities of corporate responsibility. Most essentially, my "you-owe-us" approach to fundraising has been replaced forever with a sense of collaborative strategy. Now my job feels much more innovative and my goals that much more achievable.
What are some other common misunderstandings about corporate responsibility? Can companies be driven by profit to be responsible?
--By Bunmi Akinnusotu
Bunmi Akinnusotu is the Corporate Development Officer for United Way Metropolitan Chicago. She has spent five years in the health and human services sector as a fundraiser and advocate for social justice. Her interests are corporate responsibility and philanthropy, nonprofit leadership, and social justice, particularly for women and people of color. Bunmi is a native of Providence, RI and currently lives on Chicago’s West Side.
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