After years of practicing corporate social responsibility, I'm still surprised how often companies mix up their priorities. Practicing CSR isn’t about being seen on big sustainability lists — it’s about creating strategies that produce measurable results and lasting impacts.
Putting strategy ahead of reputation gives companies’ initiatives more flexibility. With so many causes competing for attention, creating a universally inclusive mission is nearly impossible. Sticking to a business's areas of strength allows it to drive meaningful, enduring change — exactly the type of effect that lands companies on CSR lists anyway.
Making the List the Right Way
Despite a recent CPA Journal study questioning the validity of CSR lists, they’re far from evil. A mention on a list can reinforce the value of a company’s contributions to a cause and provide cover when the company's public image is besmirched. Plus, companies that consistently get recognized can mold the next generation of CSR contributors and have a hand in more initiatives than they’d ever imagined.
That said, CSR’s tangible benefits far outweigh the public relations boost of seeing the company atop the latest rankings. CSR work creates genuine connections with customers and communities, and it helps companies build natural reputations based on real contributions.
During my work with the Clinton Global Initiative, one member — a large global electronics company — began providing tents to homeless people in a developing nation. The company did it not for the publicity but for the positive difference it made in the community. That aid created a trickle-down effect to surrounding villages, initiating meaningful change without the company needing to validate its efforts through PR.
How To Put Value Over Recognition
The following strategies will help you stop focusing on making the next sustainability list and start providing greater value to your community.
1. Build on past efforts. When Ban Ki-moon, then the secretary-general of the United Nations, debuted the “Every Woman Every Child” program in 2010, the program's goal was to leverage the power of multiple governments, businesses and citizens to support health initiatives for women and children. Although that partnership has seen some success, it needs more companies to carry out the mission and help address problems that have lingered for some time.
To build upon this program's efforts, my company, MEBO International — a global leader in regenerative medicine — pledged to make major donations of ointment over the next few years to help Malaysian victims of burn trauma. Burn-related deaths account for 265,000 fatalities across the globe each year, the 11th most common cause of death for children ages one through nine, so we wanted to undertake this cause. As more international leaders join the movement, it could soon see the results the U.N. envisioned at the start of the program.
2. Provide training and support. Communities need more than goods — they need intangible help as well. Training and education can transform short-term support into long-term change.
For example, rather than provide limited access to education, CSR initiatives should give locals opportunities to become educators themselves, extending the reach of the initiative while leaving a larger imprint.
My company’s latest initiative goes beyond donations and one-time aid; it also provides training courses for local doctors and medical professionals, strengthening economic development in impoverished regions while providing resources for healthcare needs.
3. Focus on your environment. It’s easy to home in on global crises and neglect local causes, especially if your focus is on making lists instead of making changes. Address local needs as well as global ones to influence communities both near and far without excluding people in need.
Providing employees access to opportunities for volunteerism is a good start, but it's not a lasting solution. To increase your local footprint, align your CSR with the issues most relevant to your industry and location.
One of the best examples of this concept exists in China as the “Belt and Road” initiative, which establishes business partnerships along the Silk Road trading route, benefiting multiple small communities while also developing the larger region.
Lists are nice; impact is better. By focusing on increasing the effectiveness of your CSR initiatives, you can start making more significant progress toward your philanthropic goals. As you become more successful on this path, placement on lists will follow naturally.