I was invited to speak to an elite Los Angeles group of high powered CMOs (Chief Marketing Officers) about innovation and corporate social responsibility. Representing an array of organizations (size, demographics, geographic reach & industry focus), the question I wanted to ask the group to tackle was:

  • “Is Corporate Social Responsibility working?
    o If so, “How do you define CSR success?”

Over the last few years, all of us – consumers, employees and business leaders – have been shepherded into the “responsible business movement” without the benefit of true definition and scope.

And the result? Some corporations swear they have earned net-positive triple bottom line rewards: a-la “profit, planet & people” – and other corporate CSR initiatives have been labeled as expensive, “green-washing” failures that have actually damaged a company and/or its brand reputation. What has crystallized, for me, is the obvious need for greater collaboration between organizations and the people in them. We need to do this so that we can define true integrated strategies that address the issues of sustainability and social justice.

The bottom line is, sustainability is not a business issue – it’s a societal concern – in which business is deeply implicated. We share this planet and therefore responsibility to its ecology and people.

Since our current business climate allows voluntary and free-market CSR measures – we are recognizing “niche” successes. Critics are demanding that our government get involved. But were we to mandate CSR through legislative intervention, I think we’d run the risk of stifling innovation around these societal problems.

When evaluating whether a company has a successful CSR initiative, I proposed that the following checklist be considered:

  • At the organization’s helm, is there a visionary leader or a clearly-assigned CSR implementer?
    Achievement of complex sustainability outcomes is related to the attainment of advanced leadership capabilities. While it doesn’t have to be the CEO, this executive has to have the overall responsibility for delivering CSR objectives, and the authority to remove internal roadblocks.
  • Is there complete internal “departmental” commitment to the CSR initiative?
    Suppliers need a consistent message, especially between the sourcing & merchandising departments
  • Does the CSR initiative have measurable goals? (You can’t improve what you don’t measure)
    o Business Ethics / Governance
    o Community Outreach
    o Diversity / Employee Empowerment
    o Environmental Stewardship / Green Practices / Sustainable Development
    o Philanthropy
    o Employee Relations
    o Human Rights
    o Lobbying
    o Transparency / Financial Disclosures
  • What recognition programs are in place for stakeholders?
    o Supply Chain
    o Employees (volunteerism / gift matching)
    o Community in which the business serves
    o Consumer Engagement
  • Are there sound external relationships to engage effective Corporate-Community Partnerships?
    o NGOs, Charities, Non-profits, For-profits
  • Why is the organization engaging in CSR?
    o To enhance the corporate image?
    o In response to stakeholder pressures?
    o Innately part of the corporate culture?

There is a growing body of evidence that links companies which take their pursuit of social and environmental goals seriously — firms guided by enlightened innovative values — with superior stock market performance, low employee turn-around and excellent reputations.

As it turns out, my question shouldn’t have been whether or not corporate social responsibility is working, but rather “What can we, as business innovators do to make CSR work better?”

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