CSR requires strong leaders

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 March, 2011, 12:00am

Most companies in Hong Kong now have some form of corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme, recognising their duty to make a positive contribution to the broader community.

Typically, it involves one or two people in the public relations (PR) or marketing department channelling donations or marshalling volunteers for charity-linked projects, as an add-on to their other tasks.

Caroline Sanderson, senior vice-president for social innovation with Waggener Edstrom, a United States-based PR agency, says this approach misses the point. 'CSR is supposed to be about your company's impact on the environment and the community,' she says. 'You should be looking at how to change your own business practices and seeing which skill sets you can use to better society.'

It also helps to see CSR as journey. Initiatives should be long term, closely aligned with day-to-day operations, and take account of shifting stakeholder expectations. Making this happen requires different thinking and new expertise. 'In the US, CSR is now considered a serious and credible profession,' Sanderson says. 'People in such roles have to be pretty savvy business professionals who can bring diverse skills to the job and are credible with senior leaders.'

Citing Microsoft, she says that, a few years ago, their initiatives were 'all over the place'. A head of corporate citizenship was brought in to give focus and direction.

As a result, the company concentrated its CSR efforts on long-term sustainability and areas where software and technical training could make the most difference. This, Sanderson adds, led to greater involvement in education projects around the world, changing countless lives for the better.

She also mentions how Nike rose to the challenge of changing labour and business practices throughout its supply chain, and has shared this knowledge.

'The process has to be very introspective and senior management must get involved,' Sanderson says. 'Companies shouldn't be doing the same things. It is best to pick issues you are good at and passionate about, and which affect the people you employ.'

She senses that Hong Kong is several years behind the US in this respect. To catch up, companies should redefine their targets and make more effective use of internal resources, she says. They should also appoint staff with the seniority and skills to communicate, motivate and effect change at every level.

Robin Bishop, chief operating officer of Community Business - a not-for-profit group in Hong Kong running workshops, training and consultancy services on CSR issues - says a typical mistake is to think of corporate responsibility as something ad hoc. Hong Kong companies equate it with corporate philanthropy or donations to charity, not seeing the wider context.

'CSR is a business imperative and needs to be integrated into the strategy and day-to-day operations of the organisation,' she says. '[Leaders should] regard it as central to business success and give the resources it deserves.'

She advises that companies use a four-step framework. This starts with having committed leadership and looks to the needs of customers, employees and investors.

'We recommend thinking through the full business case,' Bishop says. 'The focus areas or issues might differ greatly from one company to another.'

Making its mark

In the past decade in the US, CSR has become a business function

In terms of training, more CSR-related courses have been incorporated into business programmes

Failure to act in a socially responsible manner could damage corporate reputation and bottom line