Companies show they care

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 June, 2012, 12:00am


For companies everywhere, the balance sheet and profit statement will always be key measures by which performance is judged. But a significant shift in business thinking means the issue of corporate social responsibility (CSR) continues to assume increasing importance.

Organisations of every size and type are more willing to accept their broader duty to act sustainably, protect the environment and contribute to society at large. And, over the last few years, the message has begun to sink in at the boardroom level and beyond, that success should also be gauged by reference to something more lasting than share price or annual returns.

'Interest has been growing fast in Hong Kong,' says Richard Welford, chairman of CSR Asia, which offers a wide range of consultancy and training services. 'There is a recognition that CSR is an important part of a company's brand and reputation and that, elsewhere in the region, companies are becoming much more sophisticated in developing strategies that can lead to a competitive advantage.'

Initiatives such as the Hang Seng Sustainability Index have given extra impetus. And encouragement from the stock exchange for companies to report on CSR projects has helped to increase awareness.

However, Welford knows far more can be done. Many Hong Kong companies still lag behind international best practice in terms of commitment, action and disclosure. For example, there is still a widespread tendency to regard environmental degradation and wastage of resources as someone else's problem. In general, CSR programmes are still seen as an option rather than an obligation. And the suspicion remains that too many companies conceive projects as a public relations or marketing exercise instead of building something more substantive.

'Overall, there needs to be more training and awareness raising so that companies engage in meaningful and responsible [schemes] and can evaluate the impact of community investment strategies,' Welford says. 'CSR projects should be aligned to the core business and supported by the skills set the company can provide.'

Typically, projects that win most kudos have a clear link to environmental issues, deal with poverty alleviation or help people start their own social enterprises. The key, though, is to ensure the initial concept is well designed and has a clear intended impact. Otherwise, the best intentions can easily amount to very little.

'In Hong Kong, there are quite simply too many projects that have limited impact on the community,' Welford says. 'Companies spread themselves too thinly. It is better to focus on a small number of meaningful projects rather than adopting a scattergun approach, supporting too many initiatives that don't make much of a difference.'

Taking the right approach, accountancy firm KPMG China has prioritised schemes where staff can offer professional skills and expertise. Last year alone, employees gave about 11,000 hours of their time on a pro-bono basis to help non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charity groups prepare accounts, co-ordinate fund-raising efforts and put proper management oversight in place. The work may also extend to assisting with IT infrastructure and setting guidelines for procurement so that everything is above board and runs efficiently.

One aim is to promote the element of engagement and volunteerism. Another is to focus deliberately on three main themes - education, environment and empowerment - with a view to helping people help themselves. 'We look at the sustainability of different projects, the deliverables and the expected impact on beneficiaries,' says Diana Tsui, head of CSR and diversity for KPMG China. 'There is nothing wrong with employees rolling up their sleeves and doing some physical work such as planting trees, but I believe each business has core competencies and the essence of our contribution should be to leverage our skills set.'

Therefore, to support education in China, the firm might make a grant from its charitable foundation to build a school or community centre. But it would also arrange for volunteers to help develop the curriculum or teach classes that introduced some of the basic principles of international trade or management.

'We always work with social enterprises, NGO partners and non-profit organisations that have experience on the ground,' Tsui says. 'The critical part of what we do is seeing where there is a lack of capacity in certain areas and then providing the necessary expertise.'

In Hong Kong, for example, that means doing the books and providing staff training for the Society for Community Organisation, a Sham Shui Po-based NGO helping recent immigrants and underprivileged children. In Sichuan province, it has led to tie-ups with the China Children and Teenagers Fund and, through contacts in the business world, persuading architects and engineers to participate in post-earthquake rebuilding.

'The projects and partners can be big or small,' Tsui says. 'What matters is whether the programmes are within our parameters and if we think they can deliver results.'

In similar vein, Dorothy Chan, group public affairs manager (environment) for CLP Holdings, notes that outcome, not scale, is the real test of success. The company's own community investment initiatives logically include high-profile efforts to promote cleaner air, sustainable development and healthy living for all. However, they are also keen to support education and the arts at grass-roots level.

Reflecting this approach, outdated switchgear has been donated to the Savannah College of Art and Design Hong Kong for students to convert into creative works of art. Instead of being scrapped, the equipment will be 'recycled' and go on display in a completely new guise.

'Our staff provided technical and engineering advice to see that the base of each planned artwork could withstand the weight above,' Chan says. 'A number of engineers were in awe of the students' imagination, and it showed the value of having large and small projects to address different needs in the community.'