kevinwebbAuthentic Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): Moving Beyond Corporate Philanthropy for Social Change AND Business Impact

By: Kevin R. Webb In: 2010 Annual Conference

26 Apr 2010

A year ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Mitsubishi Electric corporate headquarters in Tokyo, where I learned about our overall company Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities. It was a real education, as I learned that CSR goes far beyond being a good corporate citizen through philanthropic giving. Good CSR includes developing high-quality products, implementing sustainable production processes, operating with integrity, and being a company where people want to work.

Here at the Council on Foundations annual conference, corporate grantmakers have been discussing taking traditional CSR further. We’ve discussed how we can use the power of all of our corporate assets—our products, processes, and people as well as philanthropy—to maximize our business goals as well as make lasting changes for the better in society. 

Some companies are leading the way in aligning philanthropic giving with CSR efforts. Others are just beginning this process. We discussed ways in which we can move toward this vision. Those that have had success indicate that moving toward “authentic CSR” is by no means an easy process. It takes a willingness to change. It may be easier if driven by the business rather than the foundation. It may take a new governance structure to coordinate various aspects of the business to achieve broad CSR goals, and community engagement staff may require new competencies.

As our colleague from Hitachi Foundation—Barbara Dyer—pointed out, while we seek to align CSR and business goals, one should not forget the value our more traditional philanthropic giving has and the impact it has made. For example, Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation has used its modest funding to support the inclusion of young people with disabilities in U.S. society for nearly 20 years, with notable success. There is seemingly no direct connection to Mitsubishi Electric’s business of making social infrastructure, energy and environmental products, and our philanthropic focus on the social welfare of people with disabilities—but does that matter? Our executive leadership and employees believe in the tradition of helping people with disabilities, so we would not aspire to give up that philanthropic focus. 

However, there are ways in which we could direct our giving without conflict of interest to support broader company CSR objectives. Vice versa, the company could strategically adopt policies and practices that could help meet this societal need in other ways than just through traditional philanthropy. In fact, we are already engaged in some of these “shared value” activities. The company makes products, such as elevators, that are universally designed so people with disabilities can be included. The foundation provides grants to organizations that are helping prepare people with disabilities for employment in the green economy. And, Mitsubishi Electric employees mobilize to further both company goals of improving the environment and foundation goals of helping people with disabilities by doing volunteer environmental preservation activities at camps for young people with disabilities.

As corporate giving programs move down this road of aligning CSR with philanthropic activities to achieve maximum impact, we must track best practices and lessons learned to share with the field. We must document outcomes achieved—beyond just philanthropic giving—with the overall impact our companies make in the communities in which we live. Foremost, we must work to achieve shared value as companies focused on growth, and giving programs focused on improving society.

Kevin R. Webb is the director of Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation.

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