Back to the Why of CSR – Its the story that matters

From time to time it can be difficult to establish what it is all good for why is it that we are so focused on the business case, brand value, if we are listed on the FTSE4Good or not etc. We tend to be preoccupied with the technicalities or the How of CSR and not as much on the Why. The Why tend to be taken for granted because there is so much pressure on showing that we can be transparent, accountable or that we have a effective plan for our work. But when we are forced to think about and explain why corporations are engaging actively in CSR and goes beyond the mere management of stakeholders we come back to the basics of telling the story of doing good.

I have never met manager or business leaders who have not taken a stand on their business impact on the society they are part of. Some would claim that paying tax would be sufficient others have a broader perspective on the thinking, but common for them all is that they have taken a stand and that they have a personal story to tell that explain that standpoint. They like all of us have focused on the Why while we might disagree or agree on the standpoint they do have a personal story to tell that have shaped their opinion and convinced them why their standpoint is the best solution to business role in society.

Now I could leap into a greater discussion on the different discourses of CSR explaining the pros and cons of Friedman or Porter and Kramers standpoints or maybe explain why Ruggie is such a proponent of political CR. But I will refrain from this discussion and just conclude that we have different perspective on the role of business and even though one manager might be reluctant and sceptical towards CSR in general, most large business are in some way engaged in the subject anyway. So even though management might be pretending not to be religious about CSR when they fold their hands they are still praying.

So back to the first question and the Why of CSR. In my opinion it is all about the story about the journey the corporation describes and the willingness to share this with the rest of the world. Basically explaining to the world about your individual Why. At the Global Compact website there are hundreds of stories about the Why of CSR some from companies that have integrated CSR in all parts and corners of their business others have only focused on a very narrow part of the CSR spectrum.

One of the places were one can find stories about the corporate CSR journey is in the Global Compact (GC) case story archive. The story being told are of cause about the ten focus areas of the GC and how different organisations work with each of these elements individually. The idea is that best practice can be shared among the participants and beyond. But the story behind the story is about how some stories are told better or have a greater appeal than others. For example have most of the storytellers a real and definite focus on environmental issues and especially their carbon footprint, but almost no one have a story to tell about their anti-corruption work. This differences in corporate attention gives a real picture of the Why organisation engage in CSR activities.

The same picture is evident when one examines the Communication on Progress, which is a precondition for continued membership of the GC. Corporation just seems to focus more on the areas were their most salient stakeholders have their main attention. In research done by Ralf Barkemeyer on CSR in the context of international development he found that the main focus was on environmental issues followed Human rights and Labour rights and last to come was anti-corruption. Another interesting thing that came out of the survey was that a very large proportion of the issues addressed by EU companies were directed at the home country and not as one might think at the countries were the corporation was most active.

This tells us that the Why of CSR should be found not in the effort top do well by doing good but rather as a way for companies to confront some of the issues that their most salient stakeholders have with the company. These can be customers who demand specific actions, but more likely it is home country media who highlight specific issues, which have the possibility of threatening to companies’ ability to operate efficiently. In resent years the majority of this pressure have been channelled through institutional investors who have a increased stake in ethical investments. While individual shareholders might not be influenced by corporate decisions the case is not the same for larger investors such as pension funds or large unions.  The reason why we make this distinction is based on some of the characteristics of these two investor groups.

Individual investors tend not to know their investments portfolio ethical performance. While they might know a great deal about the economic performance they have little or no knowledge or for that matter interest in the CSR work that the company is involved in. The reason is that most investors (excluding shareholder activists) have a very limited view on corporate performance stretching for a short period of time where they expect their stock to perform. This strategy encourages companies to focus on indicators, which they can influence with relative ease compared with larger problems one can find with the area of ethics and culture.

Institutional investors have a clear interest in long-term engagement meaning more than five years. First of all because institutional investors are normally able to invest relative large sums of money in a company and by that have a opportunity to influence its strategic development. Second, as a institutional investor you are under constant scrutiny by the press and other media on how you put together your investment portfolio. There have been several instances were investors have been forced first by the press and later one by their own stakeholders to change their investment strategy. Just take the Norwegian oil-fund, which I have blogged about some months ago and their engagement in Burma.

The lesson is that the Why of CSR is about the tory one tells or let other tell about the organisation. That organisations ethical performance is much more normative that we would like to think and that if we like stories about Ecology or Human rights there will also build a pressure for corporation to act within these areas. And that if we are enough that think the same way about a issue we will change corporate behaviour even though it is against the monetary logic of the moment.

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One thought on “Back to the Why of CSR – Its the story that matters

  1. Pingback: Lessons learned from legislation on CSR « SRI Portfolio Management

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