Is CSR Dead? Oh No, Not That Question Again …

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By Neill Duffy

The opportunity to attend a recent Barclays debate at the British Library in London entitled “Is CSR Dead” seemed just too good an opportunity to miss, particularly given the esteemed panel members leading the debate — which including two doyens of the responsible business industry, John Elkington and Mark Kramer.

So along I went, naively expecting to have this evergreen question answered and put to bed once and for all. But truth be told, my hopes were dashed.

If the delegates participating in the debate, either in person or remotely, are a reflection of the industry as a whole, then my main takeaway from the debate is that we are more confused than ever. It seems that we are more hung up on acronyms, definitions and words than on the substance of what it is that we practice and what it is that we are trying to achieve through the work that we do.

Rather than repeat what has already been summarized in numerous post-debate reports that a simple Google search will unveil, I thought I would add to the debate by providing my perspective.

So, is corporate social responsibility (CSR) dead? No, I don’t believe it is. Just as I don’t believe its many cousins, including creating shared value, conscious capitalism, sustainability, social responsibility, citizenship, the triple bottom line, greening, corporate responsibility and sustainable development, are dead. In fact, I believe the family of responsible business practices couldn’t be more alive and is in fact on the brink of gaining a seat in the C Suite to become the new normal.

Like most things in life, there’s the good and the bad. You have good CSR and bad CSR; badly executed shared value and well executed shared value. The same can be said for any derivative of the responsible business movement. For me, what’s more important than what name is used to describe a more responsible approach to business is the intention around why it is embraced and the greater purpose for which the responsible corporation holds itself accountable.

I don’t believe we live in an either/or world, but rather one where the opportunity exists to draw on the best that the various different approaches have to offer. In the process we can build a responsible business model that integrates a higher purpose at its heart and creates value for stakeholders at every interaction — including the environment — and makes it possible for the corporation to do good and do well.

And more and more corporations are embracing this opportunity. As Jim Stengel shows in his book “Grow“: “Businesses that center their business on improving people’s lives have a growth rate triple that of competitors and outperform the market by a huge margin. They dominate their categories, create new categories and maximize profit in the long term.” Stengel uses the word “purpose” to describe this intention, which he calls the “management philosophy of the 21st century.”

This purposeful approach sits at the heart of the organizations I’m privileged to work with. They have each moved beyond doing good or doing well to doing both by embracing the opportunity to adopt an approach to their businesses that improve people’s lives, limits their impact on the environment, embraces the markets, and provides value at the intersection of profit and purpose.

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For the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee and the 50 Fund, the occasion of the 50th Super Bowl in February 2016 is being used as an opportunity to deliver a net positive event: one that goes beyond the traditional and uses the mega event as a platform to benefit the entire San Francisco Bay Area — socially, environmentally and economically. At the same time, the Host Committee is focussed on delivering a great event and providing sponsors with a platform that they can use to engage with their stakeholders, support the on going development of the region and build their businesses. It’s a great example of what’s possible when a major sports organization has the right intentions.

At One World Play Project, a mission to deliver the power of play anywhere and everywhere has already improved the lives of over 45 million people thanks to the donation of over 1.6 million almost indestructible soccer balls that never go flat and don’t need a pump. Partnerships with corporate brands like Chevrolet make it possible for this B Corp to provide people with access to the benefits that play provides while also providing those partner brands with a platform around which they can tell their stories, engage with fans, build their brands and show a commitment to the communities in which they operate.

At Bay.org, the San Francisco Bay Area’s largest local environmental organization, the traditional approach to not-for-profit philanthropy and grants is being turned on its head. The organization has embraced a new conversation with the Bay Area corporates, the toursim sector, local residents, and businesses focused on the health of the Bay and the lifestyle that it supports. In the process, circular value is being built for all stakeholders and the health of San Francisco’s iconic Bay is maintained and improved.

And at in/PACT Sports & Entertainment, we’re partnering with major sponsor brands, sports and entertainment properties to help them activate their purpose. Using the world’s first global purpose activation technology platform and products, we’re connecting brands to the fans to enable what we call “fan-empowered giving” and in the process delivering value for our partners, for fans and for the wider community.

So, is CSR dead? No, I don’t think so. Rather, I think it and its cousins are growing up and coming of age. Time to celebrate.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/theirry ehrmann 2) Pixabay

Neill Duffy is a catalyst at the intersection of “profit and purpose” and a committed proponent of doing good and doing well approach to business. He is President of in/PACT Sports an Entertainment, Chief Catalyst at the One World Play Project and Chairman of the San Francisco Bay Area Super Bowl 50 Host Committee.

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