CSR Networks:Talking Shops or Partnerships with a Purpose?

I am beginning to think that many people are increasingly forgetting that the C in CSR stands for corporate. In other words CSR in a business based initiative. It is something that needs to be embedded into business strategy. It is about creating a sustainable competitive advantage for businesses. It needs to be led by the private sector. Leading businesses should promote CSR to other businesses. It is the private sector’s contribution to the attainment of a more sustainable development. It is about the social responsibility of business. You get what I mean?

CSR is not a bandwagon to be jumped on by organisations who think they understand CSR but do not and others who see CSR as a way of leveraging money out of the private sector’s coffers. It should not be the tool of people who have strong views about how a business should operate, but who have never actually run one. It is not about public sector or civil society organisations defining initiatives that they ‘think’ businesses should be involved in.

Over the last few months I have been invited to a growing number of meetings where the discussion has been the establishment of a CSR network either within countries or across the region. At one meeting that I attended, funded by a development agency (location and date undisclosed for fear of reprisals and letters from lawyers), those represented included the donor, six business associations, five NGOs, four foundations, three universities, two people from the UN and a ‘partridge in a pear tree’. No, I jest, the last one was me.

However, amazing as it may seem, there was actually no one from business. The stated aim of the meeting was to encourage businesses to do more by way of CSR by creating a network. In other words, as I politely pointed out, it seems that the intent was to encourage businesses to engage in CSR by not inviting them to be part of a network encouraging them to engage in CSR.

Now, I have nothing against networks. I am a member of a few myself and they vary in their effectiveness. But what I am increasingly worried about is the development of networks that start initiatives (often with donor funding), that end up going nowhere and which at the end of the day do not interest businesses.

It almost seems to me that some organisations want to start networks simply to grab ‘space’. In other words they set up a network in one country so that it is difficult for anyone else to do the same. It is a ‘defensive strategy’. And if that network ends up doing almost nothing then they don’t seem to care. At least they have kept ‘the competition’ out. It’s a bit like companies that buy up Internet domain names and do nothing with them just to keep others away. It rarely works and quality of service rather than a domain name usually wins out. But it is frustrating to witness dysfunctional networks in locations where they could be of so much value.

And what do these networks end up doing? There seems to be five common strategies involving the following “bright ideas”:

1.Let’s set up a committee and talk. Unfortunately that talk often revolves around philanthropy, fund-raising and the next meeting rather than anything terribly tangible. Meetings are heavy on inputs but rather light on anything resembling a meaningful output. Process seems to dominate outcomes and companies that remain in such a network (of course, many do not) use it as a cover for actually doing very little.

2.We need to do some research. Let’s find out what companies are doing. Should we look at different approaches to CSR in different locations? What we now need is in-depth research into sector specific approaches to CSR in the region and stakeholder based research examining views and aspirations that can help businesses better design their CSR programmes. And that is going to need expert researchers not networks.

3. Let’s organise a conference. As I have argued many times in this newsletter, what we do not need is more CSR conferences, dominated by consultants and with dwindling attendance from businesses. We do not need more conferences, we need better quality conferences organised by people who really understand CSR.

4.We should give out some awards. Please don’t. We have enough already and awards are completely meaningless unless they are given out by credible organisations with transparent governance structures for processing such awards.

5. A good idea would be to set up a network of networks. No it would not. Not if it involves more talking shops, more air travel to different locations and more roundtables with no outcomes. I tend to think that if we halved the number of meetings and roundtables about CSR we would probably be twice as productive!

So let’s get real about networks and their value. Networks that are established with no real purpose are really not helpful. To be successful, networks need to have very clear aims and objectives and have in mind tangible outputs (which are not measured by the number of meetings).

Moreover, too many networks that I see being established are simply duplicating what already exists and people proposing such networks are woefully unaware of what is already going on. There is too often this lazy assumption that nothing is happening, when in fact there is a lot of activity. To be honest, the sloppiness displayed by many of the networks already in existence is frustrating. We do not need more of the same.

Unfortunately, what I too often witness when I attend meetings of networks (and my vowed intent is to attend fewer) is people talking about CSR who do not understand it, long discussions about philanthropy (and not much else), people promoting a version of CSR that is incomplete and complaints about government not doing more (what did the C in CSR stand for again?).

I rarely see meaningful debates around the role of the private sector in engaging with global challenges, capacity building or initiatives that might actually contribute to sustainable development. I see insufficient partnerships with a real purpose.

One of the real problems with CSR networks, however, is that many of the participants really do not want to network. I have already discussed setting up networks as defensive strategies, but in fact, networks are actually full of people more interested in competing rather than cooperating.

And surprisingly to me it is not just the consultants who spend their time smiling sweetly and then stabbing their competitors in the back, it seems to involve any type of organisation that sees CSR as a source of funding.

Not all networks are that bad of course. But for me the most successful ones really put an emphasis on two things: partnerships and on measureable outcomes.

By definition partnerships must involve people who want to work together for a common purpose. But in the CSR community there is currently a huge distrust of other organisations working in the same field and that even sometimes descends to childish bickering and attempts to discredit the very organisations with the most credibility.

Sometimes I wonder whether we have forgotten what we are trying to achieve through CSR. Too many people see it as little more than an income stream.

As for measurable outcomes, please let us not forget that meetings, seminars and round-tables are not outcomes. Unless such events lead to real change and improvement in terms of sustainable development, they should simply not take place. Outcomes should make a difference, they should create change. Meetings and round tables might be important in that process but they are not the end in themselves.

So, CSR networks should be led by business and should demonstrate leadership and advocacy. They need to encourage cooperation and provide a ‘safe space’ where businesses can compare experiences and learn from each others initiatives.

They need to think about their contribution to regional capacity building. They need to demonstrate a clear role for businesses (often working together) in tackling global challenges around issues such as health, climate change, disaster preparedness, human rights, poverty alleviation and the development of social enterprises.

They should be about providing a link between CSR and broader notions of economic competitiveness. They should create change. They should create value-added.

If they do not do this, then they are a waste of time and money and I for one will be staying away. And so will businesses that understand CSR.

This article has been printed in tbl with permission from CSR Asia.

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Author Information

Richard WELFORD is one of the founders and the chairman of CSR Asia. He has over twenty years of experience working in the fields of environmental management and social responsibility. He was one of the early pioneers in developing social audit and reporting methodologies with UK-based organisations such as The Body Shop, IBM and Eastern Electricity in the 1990s. From 2002 to 2010 Richard was also a professor at the University of Hong Kong and headed up the Corporate Environmental Governance Programme. He has worked with some of the leading multinational enterprises and local companies and NGOs in Asia including Disney, CLP, Nike, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, Swire Pacific, Cathay Pacific, HP, IBM, HSBC, Citigroup, Accor, Credit Suisse, UBS, P&G and Adidas.

3 Responses to “CSR Networks:Talking Shops or Partnerships with a Purpose?”

  1. Indeed, the biggest detriment to effective CSR interventions and partnerships lies at the level of intent. The intent of companies and NGOs and institutions funding such committees is to ‘take’ for themselves rather than to ‘give’ to others.

    As I gathered at one of these conferences, that participants viewed CSR either as a marketing strategy or a funding opportunity. It was because of this intent, that mistrust was a huge issue between NGOs and corporates.

    Unless this issue of Intent (why are we doing CSR?) and Mistrust is resolved, nothing much will come about.

    They openly admitted that the issue of mistrust was a

    January 9, 2010 at 9:40 am Reply
  2. schernyshev #

    I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

    December 25, 2009 at 3:27 pm Reply
    • Hello,
      Thank you for your interest in tbl. You are welcome to post tbl’s content on your blog, quoting tbl (triple bottom-line) publication as the source. tbl’s twitter ID is: 3bottomline
      We look forward to your comments in the future. Best wishes.

      January 13, 2010 at 11:30 am Reply

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