Mumbai Capital

The essentials of a good CSR programme

Paroma Roy Choudhary  

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a much-maligned term in business parlance. It can mean anything really. From structured philanthropy programmes to spontaneous employee giving; from adopting villages to building schools; from getting on to large bandwagons like Swachh Bharat to sponsoring football tournaments in your child’s school. I even know of a case where the hapless CSR person in a company had to trawl Crawford Market to find caged birds, just so that his CEO’s wife could pose for photo opportunities, while setting them free. That, most definitely, did not reflect social responsibility.

But without being facetious, what does CSR imply? How can it be made effective, without being either eyewash, or an apology or an ego trip? Particularly now, when two per cent CSR spend of three years of net profits is mandatory? Sifting through the various initiatives in public and private sectors and particularly corporate programmes, one can identify factors that contribute to their long-term success and impact, apart from making the organisation look good externally and internally.

Business connect: For a CSR programme to succeed, an alignment with the core business interests of the organisation is good as it makes support easier to come by, and makes measuring and monitoring more effective. For instance, Google has free expression, child protection, education and clean energy as the pillars of its giving programmes all around the world, as these align with its core philosophy of not pre-censoring content on Search or You Tube, not allowing child pornography and focusing on renewable energy sources. And it supports a plethora of educational initiatives like coding contests, Math Olympiads and women engineers’ conclaves to facilitate science education. Latching on to a programme just because it is popular or has high decibel, without any business relevance, is unlikely to lead to desired outcome.

Brand architecture: A CSR programme should ideally flow from the brand architecture and create brand impact. A beverage brand supporting a water or soil conservation programme ensures brand resonance, as does a sports brand promoting grassroots soccer or cricket. Reebok, when it existed, supported many school-level soccer and cricket tournaments across cities to create brand resonance, among youth. Building toilets, though a great thing to do, may not have had the same impact.

Local relevance: A CSR programme needs to have local relevance, rather than following a global diktat blindly. Energy company Cairn does rural development work in Barmer, as it has key assets in large oil and gas fields in its Rajasthan block, which makes it relevant as an employer. Whereas a typical multinational company conundrum occurs when the country arms have to follow a programme blindly as that is the global mandate. A tech major had to throw out perfectly fine computers, just because, the company in the name of commitment to green energy globally, was committed to recycling (read abandon) machines over a certain vintage.

Effective measuring: What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done. To prevent CSR programmes from becoming feel-good initiatives or photo opportunities, it is imperative to measure and monitor CSR programmes. General Electric (GE) used to run its giving programme GE Elfun exactly like a business, with its own profit and loss numbers and a business head. Google has a grants calendar, which goes through three levels of vetting, both centrally and at country levels. An effective system of monitoring, whether it is disbursement of grants or building schools or clean toilets, is absolutely essential for long-term credibility of any giving programme. Corporates which run large foundations like Wipro and Infosys or the fabled Gates Foundation, have a tremendous amount of rigour around managing and measuring of programmes, with professionals running the shop.

CSR professionals: Which brings me to my last point. CSR should ideally be run by professionals and independently, to the extent possible. There is a tendency on the part of companies to club it with public policy or public relations. While either could accommodate it, the purpose sometimes could be lost to the need of pleasing lawmakers and gaining column inches.

And the job is best left to professionals, and not the CEO’s daughter or wife, though there are some notable exceptions to this, like Sudha Murty. Invariably, the best CSR professionals are those who have had solid business track records like Ashok Alexander, who ran Gates Foundation or celebrated banker Nachiket Mor who ran ICICI. They can bring the rigour and application that elevates a programme from a mere necessity to a feather in the corporate cap.

With all this acquired knowledge, I would love to run a large and effective CSR programme or practice some day. Only, no one has offered me the job just yet.

The writer is a public affairs professional with wide experience across industry sectors. Views expressed are her own.

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 9:01:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/business/the-essentials-of-a-good-csr-programme/article8283444.ece

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