Businesses are increasingly expected to solve social problems with the efficiency technically inherent in business processes. This expectation, coupled with the downsides of a short-term, profit maximizing motive, gave birth to the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

CSR has caught the fancy of business leaders across the world. In order to live or (show) responsible citizenry and meet customer expectations, business leaders are increasingly adopting a CSR strategy. Some equate ‘charity’ with CSR, some copy or blindly follow other companies, many want to genuinely address social issues but don’t know how to. Some go for the cut-and-paste approach: cut from companies that seem to the public to responsible citizens and paste for their own.

Any strategy is as good as its execution. Execution hinges on how well the idea has diffused into the operation. Diffusion requires conscious efforts by management to put in place systems and skills, and then make them run. And finally, measure their effectiveness. Only then will a CSR programme come to life – assuming that there is a strategy at all – which seemingly, there often isn’t.

Presented here is a conceptual framework for CSR activation in any company. It should provide an answer to the vital “how to” question many organizations face. The proposed CSR activation framework has three vital components: C, S, R – Capacity Structure, Relevance. Not necessarily in this order, but it sounds catchier this way.

C is for Capacity

Does your organization have the capacity to handle the additional workload or intellectual input that comes with CSR implementation? Organizations perform as good as the people they have. In other words, organizational performance hinges on the knowledge, skills and motivation of its people. The bandwidth of people to execute related tasks must be increased in order for a CSR strategy to be implemented. CSR strategies bring about change and it is a known management reality that people resist change. Effective change management requires capacity building. Candid communications between top management and all employees coupled with a solid commitment to human resource development are crucial to strategy implementation.

So, when contemplating CSR, organizations must be committed to the effective capacity building of their employees. There are two categories of people organisations must focus on: those who actually carry out the implementation of the CSR strategy and those who will provide support for the implementation.

While conceptual orientation may suffice for support function staff, CSR implementers require more intensive capacity building. They would need to learn tools, frameworks, and best practices of effective CSR implementation. The company’s human resource development manager should devise the appropriate needs assessment mechanism and separate capacity building interventions for these two groups.

Once skills have been built, organisations must address the next series of vital questions related to systems capacity: How do CSR processes interact with other organizational procedures? What are the key performance indicators for the CSR function and CSR implementers? How and when do you measure effectiveness of the CSR strategy? Answers to these questions should help organisations identify process interfaces and system design requirements for effective CSR strategy implementation.

S is for Structure

A CSR strategy will be as effective as the organizational structure that supports it. The importance the CEO attaches to CSR will be determined and communicated by the places the CSR function occupies in the organogram. The hierarchal position assigned to the CSR function will limit its authority and mandate.

In many oil exploration companies for instance, the CSR function merely exists to comply with regulatory requirements. CSR in the form of community development is a necessary cost of doing business. CSR is a low-profile function with no or little career prospects, except perhaps for the treehugger or NGO types meandering in corporate careers in search of meaning.

One large and reputable local food company was faced with this difficult question. Top management placed high priority on CSR. Various options were floated for “placing” the CSR function – this revealed inter-functional tensions and desires to control or subdue the upcoming proposed CSR position. You may face similar dilemmas:
Should CSR be a part of Research and Development because of their common proclivity towards innovative solutions?

Should CSR fit into marketing because of its apparent affinity?

Should CSR be a part of human resources so that it can begin its change management journey surely footed?

Should CSR be part of field operations as in large industrial operations, such as the oil sector?

Should CSR be an independent function headed by a senior professional equal in status to other functional heads such as finance, marketing and human resource?

Should CSR be part of CEO secretariat and run as a special assignment?

R is for Relevance

The CSR idea that the organisation wants to pursue must be relevant to its values, organizational culture and market positioning. Just like any new business initiative it must either fit the existing portfolio, address an unmet need or revolutionize the system itself. The CSR strategy must be geared towards achieving a fit between the organisation and its societal context.

An organisation can create relevance by owning a social cause or need. The cause itself is also an unmet social need, a business opportunity for the organisation to gain an unassailable ‘positioning’ as it would be seen as ‘doing good’ for a higher cause.

The question of establishing ‘relevance’, must be answered at the outset of the CSR strategy formulation. The issues of capacity development and organizational structure are thus subordinate to CSR strategy relevance.

It should also be relevant to the personal values of employees. When they believe, and can relate to the reason behind the organisation’s CSR strategy, they will be motivated in investing their time and efforts, even voluntarily. They will see their efforts to be contributing not just to ‘profits’ but also to the ‘people’ around them -the community-, and the planet they live on; hence, they will be committed to integration of the organisation’s sustainable objectives with a true ‘triple bottom-line’ approach.

In a nutshell, CSR activation rests on three pillars: R for strategy Relevance, S for Structure and C for capacity.

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Shadab Fariduddin is a management consultant and a partner in the Four Corners Group.

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