CSR RIP: why business behaving responsibly needs to be the new normal

by Helen Harvey / September 2020

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has existed as long as business itself, although the term wasn’t coined until the 1950s. Way back in the 1800s, the first step concerned working conditions in the factories emerging from the Industrial Revolution. Employers soon worked out that poverty and labour unrest didn’t make for good public relations. But it turned out that funding universal social progress projects in the fields of science or education did. Step forward Carnegie and Rockefeller.            

Fast forward to the 1970s. The idea of a social contract between business and society emerged; companies function and exist by public consent and therefore they should contribute to societal needs. Companies began to need a CSR policy – what were they contributing to society while they were making all that money for shareholders?

Along with that came scrutiny and risk. Was the publicising of company employees picking up litter or painting the wall of an orphanage merely a cynical marketing ploy to curry favour or simply to look good to its customers, with the ultimate goal of selling more products and generating more revenue? 

CSR is now a big industry as companies recognised they needed to have more than some vague examples of ‘doing some good’. At the demand of shareholders, companies now look to maximise the business value of any social or environmental work they do and these activities must be aligned to their corporate mission and values. And for CSR activities to be green-lit they also need to generate returns of some kind for the company – there needs to be a strong business case for them to be signed off.  

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Particularly with environmental armageddon looming, supply chains are being increasingly scrutinised. And this is against a backdrop of increasing concern over inequality, be that racial, gender based or financial. Companies have to move beyond conventional CSR practices around funding good causes. How they behave and what they stand for is now just as important as what they’re actually giving back to society. The photo of the team beaming in branded t-shirts at the old folks’ home in the annual company report will soon start to feel very dated.

One easy way companies can contribute is to allow more public access to their knowledge capital and that’s where the Human Lending Library comes in. Within their organisations there are skills and knowledge in abundance; in marketing, in leadership, in sales and most other things in between. 

They have invested in people by way of training, by letting them accumulate knowledge as they journey through their careers. If they can make that available to social entrepreneurs who are doing business differently, they are participants in a coordinated effort for systems level change.

We work with the founders and leaders of some of the world’s best known businesses, such as Carphone Warehouse, Tech UK, Ogilvy and Penguin Random House, all of whom volunteer their time to provide one to one support and advice to the founders of high growth and high impact social enterprises.

To date nearly 300 of these social impact leaders have used our Human Lending Library. And this isn’t just a one way street. We have found both mentor and mentee learn from each other. Mentees benefit from the personal experience of how to succeed, and often gain access to the network of the mentors. 

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The mentors, usually coming from a traditional business background, learn how business can be different, by learning how social enterprise works. They all tell us how invigorating and inspiring their meetings are. The influence of the mentees – the social entrepreneurs – on traditional business should not be underestimated. 

As creating positive social impact moves beyond a ‘nice to have’ and towards being sound commercial practice as customers demand more from the companies they spend their money with, we expect more successful business people to want to meet our social entrepreneurs. They’ll learn ways to future proof their businesses by doing so.

Kendra Walsh is the Director of Expert Impact, a not-for-profit which runs The Human Lending Library, a global mentoring programme for social entrepreneurs. 

Helen Harvey is SEWF's Event Director