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by Aman Singh Das | January 18, 2011


Last week, when I wrote a blog post titled, "Why Don't Executives Understand CSR?" I wondered how readers would react.

Would I offend feminists who strongly feel about women advancement but not necessarily the umbrella concept of CSR? Was I (without meaning to) going to annoy well-meaningful executives who spend much of their careers mentoring, influencing and driving change in organizations without labeling their work as CSR?

But for the most part, I was heartened to see more agreement than dissent. Although many did not hesitate to point out that my experience was a) nothing new; and b) an issue of bottom line financials. Several also joined in my resolution to "have these 'connection conversations' as many times as I can and aim high by targeting every senior influencer I can talk to."

As comments poured in from Twitter and LinkedIn, I realized that the issue didn't just hit a raw nerve for many but compelled many more to break their dismayed silence and participate.

Barbara Kimmel, executive director of Trust Across America, detailed several factors for this ongoing disconnect:

Confusing terminology:
      What is CSR, CR, Social Responsibility, or Sustainability?

Lack of understanding:
      Why is CSR important?

Narrow focus/other priorities:
      Focus on short term, daily task at hand

Silo mentality:
      CSR is not integrated into the culture of the corporation

No direction from the top:
    Company leadership hasn't placed CSR on the radar

Another reader chose to equalize the discussion by giving executives the benefit of the doubt. He wrote:

"I've found that most senior executives fully understand CSR although there can be different initial interpretations based on their home country and culture. That doesn't always mean that they embrace all aspects of CSR. For example, philanthropy and community programs are often dependent on a company's financial health. For a CEO experiencing a down year, where would you draw the line between reducing spending relating to CSR efforts and reducing headcount? These are some of the tough calls CEOs get to make."

Yet another argued that "executives won't one day wake up and embrace CSR without our help. Find a client, build a financial case for CSR with an easily deployable strategy, and utilize PR to build publicity."

Several readers also spoke out on their specific industries and offered solutions that might stem the gap. The few that I found practical and insightful:

Ongoing Struggle:
      "My industry talks a good game and does not [do] enough nor has for years. I keep speaking up."

      "I Identify: Important lessons in contextualizing and talking to people in their language"

Systems Thinking:
      "Perfect example of 'reductionist thinking vs. systems thinking.' We need to introduce systems thinking in the boardroom."

Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM):
      "This is why we need more systems thinkers in the field! Bring on the STEM grads! Holistic thinkers intuitively grasp that seemingly unconnected topics are just inter-related. And CSR desperately needs this."

Value Creation:
      "I think there's a problem explaining what CSR means in terms of value creation."

Generation gap:
    "I think it will take a couple of generations before we see substantial change. Many of the current 'leaders' got their MBAs or advanced degrees when grad schools [had] never heard of CSR and the only emphasis was on returning as much as possible to shareholders."

Then there's Chris Oestereich, (@costrike on Twitter) who offered an Upton Sinclair quote as example that fit quite well with the discussion. He tweeted: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

But for Marcy Murninghan, editor and cofounder of The Murninghan Post, and the founding president of Lighthouse Investment Group—a consulting firm focused on fiduciary duty, stewardship, and social responsibility issues—this is but further testimony of the importance of our work as CSR job seekers, careerists, advocates, protagonists, and advisers. As she put it:

"We're at another stage in evolution. We need a new vocabulary. We need to get beyond our self-imposed soft borders. And we need to find overlapping points of agreement, of consensus. There's a lot of work to do. And these experiences, as disappointing as they are, mean that we're learning something. It's what we do with that knowledge that counts."

My resolution from last week stands affirmed: I will have these "connection conversations" as many times as I can. And I will aim high by targeting every senior influencer I can talk to.


Filed Under: CSR

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