A few months ago, I had the opportunity to speak at Harvard's "Public Interested?" conference, an event for students interested in exploring public interest careers. I was honored to speak during the Big Public Service Ideas session, moderated by Sonal Shah, former director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the White House, alongside amazing people like Jarrett Barrios, CEO of American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts, and Julia Silverman, Co-Founder of Uncharted Play.
Each speaker was asked to address the question, "What is your big idea in public interest?" No pressure, right?? After grappling with the idea, I decided to address a topic that, while perhaps not in my own career self-interest (!), is something that I feel strongly about, and I suspect that a number of you do, too. Here's an adapted version of my speech:
My big idea today is that we must make all jobs corporate social responsibility jobs.
Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, goes by many names - shared value, corporate citizenship, strategic corporate philanthropy, corporate social innovation, and so on. No matter what the buzz word, I believe CSR boils down to one simple idea - that companies should engage with the social issues that create risks and opportunities for their business, and that, by doing so, they can produce value for both the company and the wider community.
Evolution of CSR
Historically, CSR - really just corporate philanthropy at the time - was very much held apart from the company. The business made the money, and then the company's foundation or corporate giving group gave a little of it away - most likely to whatever nonprofits the CEO and senior executives found particularly compelling.
Starting in the 80s and 90s, corporate philanthropy became more strategic, recognizing the opportunity to build business value while also building social value. Companies particularly focused on driving HR and PR goals through corporate giving and employee engagement - for example, partnering with a cause that reinforces their brand positioning or working to increase employee loyalty by creating opportunities for employee volunteerism.
In about the past 10-15 years, companies started developing a broader understanding of corporate social responsibility, recognizing that they bring much more to the table than just cash and employee time, that they could in fact re-engineer their business practices to drive social impact in a way that had a positive impact on the company. This is when you started seeing a significantly increased focus on sustainability, for instance. Similarly, some companies have made an effort to develop products that meet an unmet social need while also generating profits.
In the past couple of years, Professor Michael Porter and Marc Kramer, both thought leaders in this space, have refined or reframed this field by introducing the concept of shared value, which they define as "creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges," and which they say must be at the center of the business, not marginalized into a nice-to-have, bolted-on CSR department.
Business Unit Ownership
As we follow this progression, we see that, to fulfill its potential, CSR must be owned by the business units, not by the CSR group. If the company is going to deliver social value by fully aligning social value with business goals, then it has to be driven by the person who owns the business goals.
I'm experiencing this right now in my role. I'm responsible for making sure that our company has a responsible paper sourcing policy - we're a publisher (among other things), so one of the biggest ways we impact the environment is through choices we make about paper. I've very quickly found, though, that I can't drive this conversation. I'm not the expert in paper - my colleagues in procurement are. I can draft a policy, but I won't be there for the hundreds of decisions, large and small, that constitute its execution. As such, I need my colleague in procurement to drive the development of the policy, and also to feel a strong sense of commitment to it. I can raise the issue, I can make connections between various relevant stakeholders, and I can be cheerleader, but this can't be my policy.
This means that employees in every department not only have the opportunity to deliver social value through their day jobs, but that they in fact must take responsibility for the company's social impact.
Implications for Job Opportunities
What does this mean for young people considering a career in CSR? It means that, no matter where your passion lies, you have the opportunity to change the world. Are you passionate about investing? Go to a venture capital fund and look for investment opportunities in companies that have a positive social impact. Are you obsessed with operations? Think about how your company can reduce its environmental impact, or how you can include marginalized populations in your supply chain. Do you love products? Do you always have to have the latest and greatest gadget? Take a job in product development and think not only about how to delight your customers, but also about how to address the real health, educational, or other social challenges in their lives.
Implications for CSR Departments
Of course, this changes the jobs of people like me, who work in traditional CSR departments. It means that my job should no longer be about carrying out the company's social impact, but rather about empowering my colleagues to do so.
CSR professionals must become trainers and educators, inspiring their colleagues to take ownership of social impact and providing them with the context and information they need to make a difference. We should be internal consultants, advising the business units on CSR strategy, and connectors between stakeholders both internal and external. We should essentially be responsible for doing business development for the concept of CSR within the company, growing the firm's social impact footprint.
This evolution also increases our reliance on CSR thought leaders, the professors, researchers, consultants, and other thinkers that advance and evangelize for the field.
Implications for Schools
This approach to CSR has implications for colleges and business schools, too. We need to introduce these concepts to students early, to let them know that this kind of thinking is even possible. Schools are indeed increasingly raising issues of corporate social responsibility, of the ethics of supply chain and environmental issues, but I think it's still rare for them to address corporate social opportunity, of the benefits companies derive from engaging in social issues. Of course, these messages should not primarily be segregated into classes that are specifically about CSR, but should be integrated, both explicitly and subtly, into a wide range of classes on business and other disciplines.
So what should a we all do today? I'd encourage you to think creatively and ambitiously about your career choices. No matter where your passions lie, you have the opportunity - and indeed the responsibility - to drive social impact. But you have to take personal responsibility for that opportunity. At least at this stage of the game, no one will ask you, "What did you do this year to align our business's goals with its social impact?" That's a question you have to ask yourselves.
At the same time, it's a question that you should ask of your employers. One of the major proof points that companies use to justify CSR is that employees expect it, that in fact demand it of their employers. Show your employers, and even your prospective employers that, not only do you want to know about how the company is having a social impact, but that you want to be part of it. Tell them you think you can do it while also improving the health of the business - and then prove it to them.
Join me in making every job a CSR job.