Superficial or nothing at all?


Today I want to conduct a short survey around motives for engaging in Corporate Social Responsibilty.

Let’s be honest CSR still has a very mixed following. Is it evil or is it angelic?  

Is a company that has a superficial approach to being responsible better than a company that quite openly does nothing at all? Is something always better than nothing? How important are the motives?

I’ve been amazed at the perception of some of those that think a business can move from a state of almost completely blissful ignorance of anything outside their daily radar, to being an award-wielding champion of all things ethical, Corporate Social Responsibilty or Sustainability. There are more businesses at the lower end of the development spectrum than we would like, and every single organisation and individual in a position of influence needs a tailor made roadmap to begin or accelerate their journey forwards.

I would of course always prefer a company to fully understand and appropriately morally manage all of the concerns of all stakeholders but we aren’t going to reach that point anytime soon unfortunately. Money has a morally limiting effect on many people.

My view is something is better than nothing, and on a professional level gives me an opportunity to further challenge from within, but is there an ethical argument against this?

I’m be very keen to hear from those with strong positions against the CSR agenda and would be grateful if this request could be forwarded as a challenge to all.

I’ll be posting an unbiased (as much as possible) review of all comments next week.

6 thoughts on “Superficial or nothing at all?

  1. Dave Macdonald

    David, I run a CSR program and come up against this all the time.

    There are two distinct extremes in non-authentic CSR. The first is when people without a strategic understanding of either their own program, or CSR in general say “Let’s just do x. It makes sense and looks good.” These sorts of non-strategic moves don’t capture the overall picture and risk management falls by the wayside. Risk management in CSR is one thing a company cannot afford – it takes years to offset bad CSR moves.

    The second extreme is doing good things in order to hide something else. Oil & gas companies come to mind here. The fact they have CSR programs that are passable is appalling. This is the ultimate corruption of CSR and holds true to some of its origins, as I understand them, as they relate to the banana cartels.


  2. Brad Clark

    I don’t know if there is an easy answer to this question. I think Dave McDonald brings up some good points. I agree with his thoughts on non-authentic CSR programs.

    I think CSR can be leveraged to create ‘win wins’ for everyone, however being authentic becomes more complicated. A CSR program falls short when the program thinks of its own personal win before that of the community. This does not necessary mean a cover-up or not being strategic enough. I think the best CSR programs are grassroots by nature and their number one goal is giving back to the community and being a good corporate citizen. In other words having good values, -yes you are doing something good –but why?

    The PR side will spread, but if that is your only goal it is very shallow.

    I think for a CSR program to true to its values, it should do two things. First it should make sure this program or project will add real value to the community. If this is true, then it has to ask –if we do this project and there is no publicity and no one knew we did this, would we still do it. If the company can say yes, then I think they’re on the right track.

    How do you view the following:

    Where do you see the place of corporate volunteering?

    Should charity work, environment programs, etc be dictated and directed by corporations or should it be in the hands of communities and local governments?
    Due to lack of government involvement and cut backs to these programs should corporations fill in?

    Should companies take credit for when their employees donate their time and money?

    What types of programs should corporations get involved in?

    Should companies put their money where their mouth is, and CSR is just a way to avoid taking money out of their accounts and putting that placing that responsibility in the needs of its employees to only take credit after?


  3. David Handelman

    I think both of the previous commentors make good points. However, having worked for a large corporation with a well developed philanthropy program / community involvement program, I have to say that whether the intentions are genuine or not, something, anything is better than nothing. I have come to learn that with the intense pressure leaders of a corporation feel to steadily increase the bottom line, (or minimize decreases in the current economic environment) often the actions and CSR programs are to improve the company’s image, in the eyes of the public and the eyes of its employees. But who cares what the motivation is? If the current wave of ‘CSR as PR tool’ encourages and sets the standard at some sort of consciousness for environmental responsibility, sustainability, community involvement or volunteering even at a minimal level, that is a gain that can be built upon in the future. What I can’t stand is companies that try to distract the public’s eye from terrible practices in other parts of the world with CSR programs and flashy ad campaigns in North America or Europe. It’s funny that Dave McDonald mentions oil companies, because that is exactly what Chevron is doing and it drives me nuts!! I think with their actions in Ecuador, Nigeria and elsewhere they have proven that they are one of the worst companies out there!


  4. Bernd Nurnberger

    From my perspective, CSR with its still very mixed following is neither evil nor is it angelic. For many, it is rather evangelic.

    Early adopters and seers of the light face the usual uphill battle against misunderstanding, mis-communication, and bureaucracy. Misguided incentive systems need to be replaced or updated to pave the way for positive change. It is time for corporate redesign as advocated, for example, by the multi-stakeholder initiative Corporation 2020 (link above).


  5. T. Caine

    I would have to say that when it comes to sustainability or environmental stewardship we are still at a stage of infancy and one of our biggest barriers is ignorance. We may have reached the point where most people know what “green” means but the true meaning and methods of sustainability really have not yet percolated deeply into the populace. Anything that helps spread the word and advances the education of everyone I think is positive.

    I see the goal as trying to make responsible practices the standard and in doing that it is difficult to always require that good things are being done for the right reasons. I believe we take what we can where we can get it and do our best to keep it in the front of the mind of the consumer/resident. And though the first comment raises an interesting issue, there are still countless ways to lower environmental impact that pose little risk–the low hanging fruit.

    A related question that I find challenging: is it better for people to try to be sustainable and do/explain it incorrectly rather than doing nothing at all? Does it make the message stronger or weaker to have more voices that may not be well-educated or informed?


  6. helconnor

    I think that something is better than nothing even when it is with the sole intention of a PR stunt. Obviously I would prefer that all businesses become more ethical and sustainable and together reduce the impact on the environment and communities around them; however, this is ideal and not likely to be acheived right across the board. The sooner that CSR is thrust into public consciousness and ALL businesses are aware of it (even if that was through some sort of legislation) the better. There is no excuse for apathy, and businesses that fear that they might get their CSR strategy wrong are at risk of simply opting out. Doing the right thing even for the wrong reason is better than doing nothing at all.



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