Five Questions to Measure Commitment to CSR

In conversations with marketing, communications and CSR leaders at the 36 conferences in which ReachScale participated in 2010, an unusually high number of executives said they are doing a strategic review of their CSR commitments and strategies. One might assume that the goal is to be more impactful, to do less harm and do more good. Instead of assuming, a question needs to be asked: Is the purpose of our CSR review to increase impact? The answer is not simple, given the current economic climate.

World leaders are faced with the same challenge as CSR leaders. Every three years the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit assembles the global ecosystem that was built through a commitment to the 10 principles of the Global Compact. (Review the list here.) Much good has come from the Compact and yet at the same time, promises have fallen short. The global economic meltdown has created a kind of schizophrenia in those organizations that committed to goals that appeared reachable in 2007 but seem less so today.

Empowering an ecosystem of leaders to re-envision appropriate responses is a tough challenge. In these circumstances it is no surprise that the proceedings of most conferences on CSR are dominated by testimonials of good works completed, of new projects and collaborations being started. But these are being discussed without the goals and measures that Porter and Kramer suggested are essential.

Based on our advocacy efforts and the testimonials heard from many conference podiums, we have distilled some simple but core questions for companies who are viewing their commitment to “shared values and principles, which will give a human face to the global market” (the quote that appears on the cover of the Gobal Compact Annual Review.)

1. Can we identify and focus on a cause or problem whose solution creates shared value?

As you answer this question please consider the following quote from Porter and Kramer:

“No business can solve all of society’s problems or bear the cost of doing so. Instead, each company must select issues that intersect with its particular business. Other social agendas are best left to those companies in other industries, NGOs, or government institutions that are better positioned to address them. The essential test that should guide CSR is not whether a cause is worthy but whether it presents an opportunity to create shared value – that is, a meaningful benefit for society that is also valuable to the business.”

2. Are we taking on a problem that our stakeholders would immediately recognize as significant?

For example: No one will argue that global banks are reputationally challenged in this post financial crash world. If you are the leader of a global bank and your response to current circumstances is to do exactly what community reinvestment laws require (and only in those countries that currently regulate you,) then you are working at zero base. On the other hand, you could make a commitment to address the global migration to cities problem, actively build community reinvestment principles and seek innovative partners to address the global slum problem in every country that delivers profit to you. That is an effort that would be clearly recognized as a commitment to a highly significant problem.

3. Is the problem we have chosen core enough to our business that we can ask our experts to apply their knowledge to the problem across multiple functions?

Using global banks as an example once again: Virtually every functional group within the organization has talent that can be applied with the appropriate innovation partners to solving this problem in every major city in the developing world in which that bank operates.

4. Is the problem we have chosen important enough that each member of the executive committee could justify spending 2 days a month (10% of work time) leading the organization and the ecosystem in seeking a solution?

The Global Compact is all about commitment. One could argue that for some companies, implementing the 10 principles will take at least that much time from executives at the beginning. As leaders drive the principles deep into the organization’s collective psyche, the muscle strength needed to take on larger opportunities will develop.

5. Is our wisdom, work and investment focused on attracting participants across the value chain?

The behavior of all players must change to achieve real results. Looking to engage multiple innovation sources encourages not just one corporation’s investment but also the commitment of many other companies as well.

Increasingly the ability to create value depends on market mechanisms that attract multiple value chain and investment participants. The social innovation to attract the participants will often come from outside the companies championing the changes. Finding and cultivating these innovations often depends on a problem solving commitment that goes beyond simply serving one company’s goals. The commitment must flow from an understanding that the problem goes beyond what any single company can do; the real work is assembling an ecosystem to solve a problem which requires a committed company’s best and brightest wisdom and work.

At Sustainable Brands 2010, Jason Saul of Mission Measurement stated that the CSR practice of reporting on the checks written and the volunteer hours logged will not be an adequate measure going forward. Ben Packard of Starbucks stated very openly that Starbucks knows they have not made enough progress in addressing the most significant impact they create as a business — the cup. Jason Saul and Ben Packard are two examples of leaders asking the right questions about real CSR impact.

Note: A version of this article first appeared on CSR Wire in February.

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