5 things your CSR Consultant is Not Telling You

The first time I worked with a Saudi business contemplating CSR, what struck me more than anything else was how receptive the management was to new ideas. Yes I could hear trepidation, fear of unknown territories, not knowing how to proceed, but what rose above it all was that the leadership had no preconceived notions of what true CSR looks like or what they need to do in order to be a responsible corporate citizen.Yes, there is some unlearning to do but overall it’s easier than a company with an international parent who is saving the universe by adopting baby kangaroos.

The local partner then assumes that its role in the CSR continuum is to further the cause of its parent and it doesn’t really matter that there are no kangaroos in Saudi Arabia. The problem is further compounded when they are given a laundry list of CSR must-dos. The company management then is either too intimidated to do anything at all or starts by going item by item on the laundry list and not getting anywhere.

I am here to tell you that you don;t have to live by that list. Question each item on that list and for starters use the 5 things below:

1. Your first step DOES NOT have to be strategy:

No matter how much the consultant stresses upon it, the truth is that the first step in the CSR journey is often not a strategy. In fact you may not even need a full scope strategy for years to come. True CSR is about embedding the principals into the overall business strategy and not about an isolated document marked “CSR Strategy” that gets shoved behind the operational manuals and spends all its working life being avoided like the plague because it’s too random, ideological or just plain irrelevant. The first step in CSR journey like any other business decision is to do a due diligence. You may wish to call it stakeholder mapping, issue mapping or organizational preparedness but this single step can make or break your CSR plans. What it essentially does is help a company understand its CSR/ Sustainability context. Without knowing your context, your realties, the nuances of your business, does it make sense to draw out a 3-5 year plan? I think not.

2. You don’t need a separate CSR department

Like I said before, successful CSR is about embedding CSR into all facets of a company’s business and what you need if you are only beginning your CSR journey is a CSR Superstar. A CSR Superstar is a person who understands your business, is equipped with enough CSR knowledge and is empowered by the leadership to drive CSR. How one person alone can do so much you ask? He does so much because he is passionate about corporate involvement in social causes, he is an agent of change, and he is a person who genuinely cares about the impact of company on its stakeholders. Unless you are a company with 10,000 employees and operating in 25 countries (5 of which are in sub-Saharan Africa or Antarctica), you don’t need a full-fledged CSR department.

3. There is no prescribed list of activities/ initiatives:

If I hear one more consultant map a company’s issues into the four pillars of CSR, I may have to commit murder or suicide (perhaps later since I do believe in freedom of expression even if it is at the expense of my own sanity). There is no cut and dried formula for CSR initiatives that will ensure universal domination. CSR, first and foremost is about innovation and about being true to your realities. A car dealership can’t benefit from an anti-obesity awareness campaign and a hospital does not have much to do with road safety trainings. The most impactful and effective initiatives are the ones that are tailored to the company stakeholders, its cultural realities and above all its own inherent capabilities.

4.You don’t need that certification

Yes yes I know it is good to have big names and logos on your website and it looks very impressive in the press release when you are the first company in your industry, country, and region to get associated, certified or linked with so and so. But tell me honestly is it the certification that matters or the management improvement that you get through the process of certification. Whilst doing a GRI based CSR report is one of the best ways to exhibit transparency (and get some much needed PR), I bellieve that the real value of a report comes not just for the report itself but from going through the process of reporting. The management weaknesses, areas of improvement and the valuable opportunities you unearth while working on the report have a far greater value than a simple certification victory.

5. CSR outcomes are Measurable

Consultants have a bad name for prescribing solutions that do not have a clearly measurable outcome. However, there are some CSR consultants who have made it into an art form. Coming up with plans and strategies that cost an arm and a leg and promising measurable returns in about 13.45 years. Why? The usual answer is that societal benefit and reputation enhancement are not measurable. I beg to differ, not only are these measurable but in most cases are also quantifiable. Yes, these measures should not guide the depth of your CSR activities but they very well serve as the impetus in improving and working towards creating better linkages. The often used adage is also relevant for CSR, “what you cannot measure, you cannot control”.

What are some of things you found in your experience that defy the generally accepted CSR logic?

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Author Information

Bushra Azhar is the Founder of Good Business Sense (GBS), a CSR and Sustainability knowledge advisory based in Middle East. A former corporate VP, consultant and academic, she has 14 years of experience with almost 5 years in CSR related areas. Before starting GBS, she was the Head of Sustainability operations at a consulting business based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where she has worked with some of the top Saudi companies in helping them determine their CSR direction, designing bespoke CSR training programs and developing Sustainability reporting in line with GRI guidelines.

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