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Emily Kane Miller headshot

It’s the End of CSR as We Know It, and I Feel Fine

By and large, CSR has not been a signal of ingenuity, ethics and action. Nor has it been a moral anchor, pulling business toward integrity - until now.

In 1953, Dr. Howard Bowen coined the term corporate social responsibility (CSR), asserting that business leaders are morally obligated to consider social consequences – a responsibility that can supersede their obligations to shareholders. 

I imagine Bowen envisioned a leader, brow furrowed, weighing how the tools at their disposal – product development, employee welfare, philanthropy, or other means – might help solve a societal problem, and circumspectly pulling the best lever at their disposal only to rise the next morning and face a new challenge with the same high-stakes.

This was not for the faint of heart. In fact, CSR was intended to get your heart rate up.

Unfortunately, in the 70 years since, pulses have stayed at far too comfortable a level.

CSR has become a catchall. Corporate donations. Cause marketing. Employee matching. Environmental sustainability. Supply chain management. Volunteerism.

Structures vary widely from company to company. Very few programs are led by someone at a c-suite level. There is no widespread, recognized professional training. There are no certification bodies or audit functions of record to help companies measure and manage the quality of a social good portfolio. Social responsibility programs often lack ambition, and worse – have been used as fig leaves. Too few CSR functions passionately demand excellence.

To be clear – there is some excellent work that some corporations have done under the banner of CSR. But by and large – CSR is not a signal of ingenuity, ethics, and action. It is not the moral anchor, pulling a leader toward integrity. 

Until now. 

Bowen argued that the two most important conditions for successful CSR are that 1) business leaders must recognize the social responsibility of their work, and 2) the public must care that businesses and business leaders uphold these responsibilities.  

The 2020s will usher in an era in which both conditions are finally true.  

The major issues facing society, whether global – think climate change and the refugee crisis – or local – think homelessness and food access – have never been more present in daily life. Social consciousness has become part of the zeitgeist.  

Leaders are recognizing their responsibility. Last summer, under the umbrella of the Business Roundtable, some of the country’s most influential CEOs declared that companies should put social responsibility above profit. While this statement is only as valuable as the time, focus and – yes – money corporate leaders commit to making it true, the statement itself is unprecedented and important. What’s more, some leaders aren’t simply joining traditional corporate ranks to effectuate this change – they are building their companies with social responsibility as a cornerstone. Look no further than the likes of Allbirds or Sweetgreen to see this in action. 

So too, the public is holding business leaders to account. For the twelfth year in a row, Edelman’s trust index shows people trust business more than government. For many, this translates into a belief that business is uniquely suited to help solve society’s most pressing problems. And say what you want about millennials and Gen-Zers, but they are a huge force in holding business’ feet to the fire. Statistically, a successful social responsibility effort influences where this portion of the population chooses to work, how they use their purchasing power, and how they lead (NB: The CEOs from Allbirds and Sweetgreen are millennials).

The time is nigh. Whatever you want to call it – CSR, ESG, or social impact – leaders who build this muscle into the fabric of their organizations for real – replete with c-suite leadership, board representation, management systems, and audits – will create better companies as a result, and these businesses will make our world better. Those who don’t will do so at their organization’s peril. 

The 2020s will be the decade of the furrowed brow and the elevated heartbeat. I think that would make Howard Bowen smile.

Image credit: Saph Photography/Pexels

Emily Kane Miller headshot

Emily Kane Miller is the Founder and CEO of Ethos Giving, a philanthropic services firm, and Ethos Tracking, a related social impact data management tool that allows businesses, nonprofits and foundations to more effectively track their impact. She also serves as a Scholar in Residence at The Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at the University of California's Marshall School of Business.

Read more stories by Emily Kane Miller