January 28, 2009

Welcome to Reimagining CSR! 

This blog will explore innovations and trends in corporate social responsibility, with an emphasis on initiatives that serve both a social impact motive and a profit motive. For instance, I'm very interested in the overlapping worlds of creative capitalism, business at the base of the pyramid, cause marketing, for-profit social enterprise, and so on.

My name is Jessica Stannard-Friel, and I'm currently in my last semester of the MBA program at Harvard Business School. Prior to grad school, I worked for several years as a corporate philanthropy consultant; in that capacity, I helped companies to be more strategic and more effective in their social engagement activities. I deepened that experience by spending last summer working for a corporate foundation. Through this blog, I hope to layer together my work experience with the perspective I've gained in my MBA classes.

I hope that this blog will become a dialogue. In my posts, I plan to draw on sources including conversations with practitioners, books, articles, and conferences, but I think your comments and feedback could be the richest source of learning for me. Please don't hesitate to share your thoughts on these issues or your ideas for this blog by commenting or emailing me at ReimaginingCSR (at) gmail (dot) com.

As I consider where to go with this blog, I would really appreciate your feedback. In particular:

  • What are the major challenges currently facing the field of CSR? (e.g., difficulty measuring social and business impact)
  • What are the major unresolved conflicts in this field? (e.g., the ethics of making money by addressing social problems)
  • What are the major books, articles, websites, and other resources that a CSR practitioner must be aware of in order to be educated about this field?

If you have any thoughts on these questions, please comment - thank you!

6 comments:

  1. I'm looking forward to your blog as you explore these topics!

    One of the questions I'm starting to think about is the role of the government and public sector vs. private sector and philanthropy. I am worried that as social enterprises and/or businesses that serve the base of the pyramid pop up exponentially, governments may feel less urgency in solving the problems that are often huge investments, inefficient, and challenging to achieve given incentives, politics, bureaucracy, etc.

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  2. I appreciate the idea of creating social change while making profits - there is much to be gained by thinking creatively about this space.

    I believe, however, that we must put some thought around the best way to manage these two, at times orthogonal, at times conflicting, goals within an organization. The activities and decisions to maximize profits vs. those to maximize social outcomes are bound to surface some trade-offs. Within an organization, do you simply communicate to your staff one absolute priority (between positive outcomes vs. profits)? Let the decisions be made for you on a scenario-by-scenario basis? How do you reward and incentivize your staff?

    And ultimately, do you risk doing neither well?

    Really looking forward to your blogs!

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  3. This is certainly an interesting time to launch this blog and cover this subject; never have the challenges been greater nor the need to seize strategic opportunities more important for CSR practitioners. One topic that's top of mind for me right now stems from the industry chatter around how to sustain and even build brand equity in challenging times. Since maintaining brand loyalty and consumer confidence are critical to that, companies would be wise to leverage their CSR initiatives (corporate giving, CRM, and employee engagement in particular) to keep that social/emotional connectivity with customers/consumers. It's going to be fascinating to see how companies, individually and collectively, address these and other issues related to their CSR platforms. I look forward to following the blog!

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  4. Hey Jess

    Great start. Anyone interested in this field should probably read the Business & Human Rights Resource Center (business-humanrights.org).

    As for your questions, I have to say I think the tension in CSR is between competitive advantage and standards. Can you get some advantage from using CSR? Of course. Fair Trade Coffee is a great example.

    But socially, isn't the goal to have no exploitative coffee growing conditions. And if everyone uses Fair Trade Coffee, how does any firm get an advantage from doing so?

    The incentives shift as the number of companies adopting the standards increases. Implementation costs drop, and competitive disadvantages (i.e. higher supplier costs) fall, but the advantages disappear as well.

    Looking forward to the discussion,
    Dan

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  5. To continue Dan's points about competitive advantage, one worry I have about CSR is the potential to alienate consumers to CSR initiatives if they are perceived to be 1) fake, 2) profit-motivated. Consumers want companies to do things because the company truly cares about social change, yet they also know the company is profit-maximizing. The more that "irreputable" companies jump on the CSR bandwagon, the more the CSR initiative is at risk of losing credibility. Should there be some sort of umbrella organization or regulatory body to educate consumers on how to interpret CSR marketing messages? Or are disjointed requirements (e.g. Fair Trade as Dan pointed out) enough? Many "claims" or programs that companies enact may feel good to the consumer, but the claims may not produce any impact. Not sure if I articulated this very well, but my overarching concern is consumer skepticism and negative associations with what should be a positive social change movement.

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  6. While I sympathize with the concerns raised in the comment above, I don't know that I completely agree with the conclusion. Sure, people *want* companies to adopt CSR initiatives out of the goodness of their corporate hearts, but I think many would concede that any reason for a company to get involved is a good reason, even if it does end up being profit-motivated. That said, it would be useful to have a standards setting body at least validate some of the CSR claims being made by companies to ensure those really making a difference are separated from those simply running a marketing campaign.

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