Corporate Social Responsibility Part III: Defined by what we give not get

By Gaia and Andrew Grant

In the previous articles in this series we have discussed:

  1. the real motivation behind Corporate Social Responsibility enterprises and the need for authenticity (CSR is not a PR Exercise)
  2. the need for authentic concern for the other – not self   (Who’s Scalping Who?)

With this third article in the series we are focusing on the social responsibility imperative, considering the values, politics and practice of CSR.

It’s the end of the year. Time to pull out the dusty Christmas decorations for another year’s use and deck the halls with boughs of holly. Time for end of year parties and holiday preparations – and time to reflect on the year that has been.

And what a year it has been! This year has been a hard lesson in capitalist survival for many organizations, and our company has not escaped unscathed. As we look back and reflect on the impact the recession has had on our own business, it is sobering to realise that we are in one of those fields that quickly rises and dips in unison with the economic tides. We represent those companies providing services  that can be seen by some as optional, and as a result by can be seen to  ‘live on the sliver of discretionary spending’. And yet though this year has not been one of our best in terms of profit, we realise that we have actually gained so much more…

When times are good, we are often so busy running from one client project to the next and running the business in automatic maintenance mode that we don’t have time to stop and reflect on what we could or should be doing better. When the business slows, there is suddenly the opportunity to think more creatively, to ask the important deeper questions, to set clearer goals based on the outcomes of these, and to test and trial new approaches. This has all meant that this year has been a year for getting back to our core passions and commitments – of finding more ways for the organization we work with to reflect deeper values through sustainable Corporate Social Responsibility. The profits may be down, but we are ready to face the future with a more compelling values base and a stronger client focus.

The corporate business for Tirian will get back into full swing soon enough, as it always does (and we’ve survived every crisis thrown at us so far: from economic threats to terrorist attacks, from  dramatic health scares such as SARS to political revolution and now the GFC). Each time we have used the down time to deepen our research, relationships and values. We are sure that the next upturn of the feast to famine cycle will be upon us before we know it, so now is the time to be clear about the direction ahead so with each new growth spurt to company is built stronger and  fashioned better – built to last.


Now more than ever

CSR is an important area to focus on when business is quiet. Even if it can feel like a financial sacrifice, it’s important to know that the values that underlie true CSR activities also underpin the successful civilisations that have survived the tough times, and conversely the values that draw focus away from true responsibility and back onto pure profit easily lead to collapse, as has happened over and over again throughout history. The values that ensure that organisations are answerable to the communities that they live and work, as well as to the global community, may be the very ones that pull them out of a long term crisis.


Peaked out

One conclusion on this year from several economists is that not much has changed. Even after the crash the faulty system is still in place and the underlying disease has still not been cured. It seems that we haven’t fixed the cause, only dealt with symptoms temporarily.  In the TV documentary ‘Addicted to Money’ David McWilliams has provided a great insight into the issues and has warned that the party is over. Having barely survived a complete collapse of the financial system, the global economy is still  tottering on the brink. We’ve reached the limits of what our desires demand of the planet and what it can deliver. We’re reaching ‘Peak Everything’, according to McWilliams, and the question is whether we can manage the change or whether we will we let the changes manage us. The latest news on Dubai both metaphorically and literally ‘going under’ is simply a repeat of what many other civilisations have been through. The over-spending issues imitate what the Easter islanders, Angkorians and Mayans tribes went through when they tried to outdo each other with the most impressive tallest temples / buildings, over stretching their resources beyond repair and at the expense of looking after the masses. We need to question what lies behind our desire to push the limits in whatever we do. Wouldn’t it be great to turn the desire into having the greatest positive impact on the planet – instead of simply trying to build the highest buildings and make the greatest financial statement!


Getting past the politics of CSR

The ongoing debate over whether the contemporary organization should focus on ‘people’ or ‘profit’ will continue to rage, but to us it has become clear that in the long run the two are symbiotic. When cutting costs, it is easy to think you are justified in focusing on the bottom line bricks and mortar, but if you fail to find mutually beneficial community focused strategies your building will still fall apart when the big bad wolf comes huffing and puffing.

Those who argue against CSR will say that:

  • it distracts from the fundamental economic role of businesses;
  • it is nothing more than superficial window dressing;
  • it is an attempt to pre-empt the role of governments as a watchdog over powerful  multinational corporations.

As Anup Shah has pointed out, “ardent supporters of free markets, such as Milton Friedman, have long argued that companies should not be diverted from their pursuit of profit; it ultimately harms a free society if entities such as companies try to act for a wider good other than its own self-interest, because it is hard to know what the wider good is, and damages the primary goal of companies: responsibility to shareholders.

Shah shares how in his book, Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman argues that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

But those who argue for CSR say corporations benefit in multiple ways by operating with a perspective broader and longer than their own immediate, short-term profits. As many organisations have attested, corporations benefit in multiple ways by operating with a perspective broader and longer than their own immediate, short-term profits.

“Corporate Social Responsibility makes sound business sense. The key to our approach is our integrated business system, where environmental and social performance is managed alongside financial performance. This means we have a year-on-year program of focused action to drive improvement.” Terry Leahy, Group Chief Executive, Tesco


The positive practice of CSR

As Bryane Michale, Professor of Management at Oxford University has said, CSR is about opportunities, not about obligations and rules. It’s a way you can add value to your business by taking a closer look at your social and environmental aspects of your operations.

The advantages he outlines for companies include:

  • Better Reputation and Customer Loyalty
  • Increased Competitiveness
  • Improved Risk Management
  • Higher Satisfaction and Motivation levels among Employees
  • Enhanced Stakeholder Trust
  • Sustainable values that lead to long term sustainable growth

In our own organisation, we have found our recent CSR activities have certainly helped us to show our clients that we are serious about our business at all levels, and we have had positive feedback from clients who appreciate the difference that makes in the organisations they work with. The experience has also notably helped build staff morale and abilities – staff have had opportunities to take on different roles and practise different skills that they wouldn’t usually have the opportunity to.

BMJ Group, a leading international supplier of medical information, found they experienced significant multiple benefits through their comprehensive CSR program. The company has been concerned about being a responsible employer that gives something back to the wider world outside the business for some time, and they have identified the key commercial challenges they believe CSR has addressed for them:

  • Recruitment and retention of talented staff;
  • Developing individual and team skills at all levels within the business;
  • Promoting work/life balance;
  • Building relationships with charitable organisations and local stakeholders;
  • Attracting customers and adding value to client/supplier relationships;
  • Enhancing the BMJ brand and profile;
  • Enhancing their employer brand;
  • Improving workplace diversity; and
  • Reducing environmental impact while saving money


The ultimate gift

Ultimately though, CSR is all about giving, and with the festive season upon us this may be the best time to reflect on the power of giving unconditionally. Giving time and energy, giving financial resources, and giving over to deeper values. It is a commitment to  anticipating in positive change that impacts people at all levels.

We’ve seen what happens when people “take” and what happens when the bottom line focus is on results, maybe its time to encourage values of giving and support behaviors that encourage giving.

How might your organizational leadership be impacted if the focus was more squarely placed on behaviors that get results, and the values behind these behaviors, and not the results themselves?

“We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”
Winston Churchill

“Defined by what we give not get” by Andrew & Gaia Grant (2009) This article may be republished as long as links are posted back to  and the authors acknowledged.

One Response to “Corporate Social Responsibility Part III: Defined by what we give not get”

  1. great video andrew and gaia

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