CSR that Improves the World But Leaves Your Damaging Business Model Intact: Authentic or not?

by cv harquail on February 9, 2011

How can your organization claim to be making the world better, when your business model depends on making the world worse?

This question about corporate social responsibility efforts has bugged me for decades — pretty much since I learned what capitalism was.

The question came up again for me Tuesday during the conversation at the hopping Social Media Week 11 NYC event Let Them Eat Tweets: Online Organizing for Real World Change. The conversation centered on the panelists’ experiences with using social media (and online engagement in general) to influence offline/real world behavior towards change.

The conversation didn’t conclude with a definitive answer, and I’ve found no third position between pragmatism and idealism. But I do have a new perspective on the problem/solution that is somewhat comforting, that I want to share and get your thoughts on.201102092049.jpg

“Social Change” can be driven by many players — not all of them are players with a simple, inherently positive impact on the world.

In an ideal world, no organization would create more damage than it could correct, use more resources than it could renew, or influence the world in anything but a net positive way. In an ideal world, organizations would not feel the conflict between the business they are in and the social good they want to support in the world.

In the real world, we find many organizations taking from society with one hand, and giving back to society with the other. [Note that not all organizations in this position are for-profit businesses. However…] Many corporations have this kind of relationship between their business and their corporate social responsibility efforts. When your organization is in this position, it has a rather compromised role in social change.

The Let Them Eat Tweets panel had representatives from five very kinds of organizations, each with its own change agency role. The panelists included a social media-for-good consulting firm principle, a political performance artist, a non-profit’s social media marketer, a corporation’s public relations/outreach manager, and a global governmental communications/public affairs director.

Each of the panelists had a different perspective on the value of corporate involvement in social change– seeing corporations as clients, as enemies, as funder-philanthropists, as direct and positive forces, and as one of many partners in a global effort. The audience participants also ranged from pro-corporate to anti-business, with some of us straddling that divide on a daily basis.

Raising the Challenge

A participant challenged the corporate representative, from MTV, with a sincere question (which I paraphrase):

How could MTV, a corporation that thrived on increasing consumerism, superficial celebrity, hyper-sexualization, etc. claim to be doing any real ‘good’ in the world with their social media campaigns against relationship violence, sexually-transmitted diseases testing, and rocking the vote?

In essence the participant asked– How can you claim to be making the world better, when your business model depends on making the world worse?

That’s the kind of question that usually either stops the conversation dead or starts a fight. The participant audience moved to take sides, but the MTV representative stepped in to keep the conversation open. He acknowledged the participant’s position as one worth discussing and not dismissing, and he asked the participant to consider whether his characterization (taken perhaps at one moment in time, or built on a simplified perception of the organization) really reflected “the richness of MTVs programming and activism”. So far, so good. He went on to explain that MTV was really making a difference — a measurable difference — in young adults’ social behavior. MTV’s social media-based change initiatives were achieving real results. MTV was using online social media to influence offline behavior for social good.

I’m not quite sure what was said next, because I got too busy writing down my own thoughts. [You can watch the session online here.] I have so ‘been there’ myself, asking organization members how they can reconcile the damage they do in and with their businesses with the contributions they make, and how they can tip the balance towards the positive side.

We believe that the best kinds of CSR are related to the identity of the organization — Good CSR extends the values of the organization, benefits from the organization’s core competencies, and/or supports and serves the organization’s customers. This is CSR that is “aligned” and “authentic”.

We also wish that want organizations to just focus their CSR on cleaning up the problems that they themselves create. Sometimes, corporations  can and will blend CSR and ‘process improvement’ because it ultimately helps the bottom line. Then, it’s a win-win-win. The CSR fixes the system so that the damage that the organization itself creates is reduced, or eliminated. This is efficient, sensible, and ideal.

Most of the time, though, we can’t get organizations to do this, and we don’t really try to. We don’t think we can convince corporations to promote social change that directly conflicts with their business model. We’re pragmatic.

Really, who are we kidding to think that oil companies will help us reduce our dependence on oil?

If we put all our energies towards trying to get corporations to bite the hands they feed on, change will take a really long time, because so few organizations will be willing to do this. So, with regard to MTV, as long as Viacom’s business is sustained by advertising, we’re unlikely to get a senior employee of MTV to decide to put MTV’s CSR efforts into reducing consumerism.

Does that mean that MTV’s efforts are hypocritical? Or inauthentic? Or worthy of our disdain?

I don’t think an organization’s efforts are hypocritical, even when they focus on fixing problems they aren’t causing, if they are fixing problems where they can uniquely make a difference.

In this particular case, MTV has the voice, the attention, the engagement, and the tools to reach their audience and to influence their audiences’ behavior. And, in this case, the corporation is using these capacities for good.

I don’t think an organization’s efforts are inauthentic, even when they focus on fixing problems they aren’t causing, if they are addressing the same social issues inside their organization as they are outside with their audience.201102092027.jpg

At MTV, for example, their CSR could be authentic if they held employee workshops on cyberbullying. And, MTV could send employees information about sexual health, encourage everyone to get tested for STDs, and give them everyone who earned one a Foursquare badge.

[I didn’t get details from the MTV rep, but he did tell me that they push their initiatives inside MTV to their own employees as well as to their audience.]

Anticipating the mention of “the real world” and the value of a pragmatic approach, the audience participant quoted Henry David Thoreau:

For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.

That’s a powerful image, and it does describe the real world ratio of pragmatic/incremental vs. idealistic/profound social change approaches. We know that striking at the root is more efficient, and if we could get every organization to change its business model to eliminate the damage that it causes, we’d do that.

At the same time, though, I’ve spent enough time in my garden to know that if you hack away at the leaves of an invasive plant for long enough, with purpose, intention and precision, you can eventually kill it prune it into a size and shape that adds to the garden rather than damages the garden.

Pragmatic can seem boring. Mine isn’t a very heroic image, all of us out there with our hedge clippers whacking away at invasive branches. But pragmatic action, purposeful, deliberate and precise, actually can — and will– make a difference.

See also:
Authentic CSR: Should Dawn publicize its involvement in Oiled Bird Rescue?
Balancing Profit and Purpose at Whole Foods: Red Fish Blue Fish
When Will “Social Business” Become Social Change Business?

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