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The Year in CSR: The Four Trends of 2010

The year started off with a bang with accountability questions related to Wyclef Jean's Yele Haiti Foundation. From April on, people berated BP and cringed as the CEO told us one thing about the environmental and economic damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, while images flooding the media showed quite another story.

At conferences throughout the year—from The Economist, to the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP), Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and others—the more visionary company CEOs took to the microphones to proudly share their plans for corporate social responsibility (CSR). In interviews throughout the media, including blogs by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green: Philanthrocapitalism, Fast Company (mine and others), and Vault's CSR blog: In Good Company, corporate leaders talked about how their companies are committed to advancing social, economic, and environmental progress because that's just good business.

The CSR trends of 2010 were loud and clear:

  1. Leadership matters. For select companies in 2010, CSR shot right up the corporate ladder and landed directly in the board room, with leadership and accountability at the top. Participants at September's annual CGI meeting included scores of CEOs from global corporations returning to report on the completion of previous years' multimillion dollar commitments and make new commitments to address global social, economic, and environmental challenges. Corporate leaders with vision are recognizing that by advancing global solutions, they can create valuable renewable resources to their advantage, establish new markets for their companies, and otherwise unleash tremendous opportunities. PepsiCo and Walmart have been very visible examples.
  2. Consumers care. Cone's 2010 Shared Responsibility Study bears this out, showing that "Americans have high expectations for a company's approach to solving social and environmental issues," and "Americans hold companies accountable for a range of global issues that may impact their businesses."
  3. Measurement matters. The public does respond to nice images, and many companies are showing off their good deeds in advertisements. But companies that are greenwashing and otherwise "faking CSR" will ultimately get busted ("named and shamed") on the Internet, so measuring and documenting the company's true impact are necessary. Some companies, like Timberland, are establishing their own metrics, and challenging their competitors to jump in. Other companies are participating in the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Social Accountability International (SAI), and other networks with accountability standards. Measurement is also important to corporate boards and shareholders who expect to understand the value of CSR in advancing the interests of their companies.
  4. Accountability and integrity matter. CEOs and boards must ensure that their communications are honest and candid; they should assume that in today's media environment, the truth will out. So it's best to follow the media relations adage: "Tell the truth, and tell it first." You don't want to be the next Yele Haiti or BP.

Now that CSR has burst out of silos and onto boardroom agendas, there are unlimited opportunities for companies and communities to flourish to mutual advantage.

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  • Paul Owen

    CSR is the new buzz word in business. Too many companies are shouting from the rooftops about their green/community work. Yesterday I saw back to back TV spots from Bank of America and SouthWestern Airlines trying to prove just how 'good' they were.

    I don't buy it and they're missing the point.

    Businesses have to ask themselves some fundamental question: Why do we exist? What is the purpose of our business? The answer by the way is not to earn money.

    By finding out why, deep down why you open shop everyday, you'll find the real values that should guide your business. Follow these values and they'll help guide you in what you actually do everyday. Do this and you'll find strong bonds with your audience. Bonding breeds advocacy and this leads to growth - both financially but more importantly now, in accountability and trust.

  • Edwin Swanson

    I am new to this topic and may be saying things that others have addressed. But here is my $0.25 about CSR. I have worked for organizations that practiced CSR long before the term came into contemporary use; most notable was the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in the 1960s and 1970s before it was taken over by accountants and lawyers.
    To me CSR is more than business practices and advertising gloss that appears in various information outlets; and more than what is discussed in “The Year in CSR: The Four Trends of 2010”.
    Businesses and non-profits practicing CSR must collectively be knowledgeable about sustainable resources and support independent, nonpolitical research. Such research should focus on questioning ideas supported within entrenched sectors of the sector and government. While agreement will not be unanimous about the collective responsibility of those supporting CSR, a prominent advocacy presence of CSR practioners is necessary to foster public understanding and active support.
    Areas of possible interest by CSR practioners should include:
    1.Education and employment strategies for the able-bodied unemployed/underemployed (i.e., those formerly employed, or those qualified as blue collar and manual labor workers) to ensure productive contribution to the above-ground USA economy, instead of participating in the underground economy or living on welfare. Recent calls for USA education excellence are flawed because it is rooted almost exclusively among educated professional policy makers who overlook the continued production of graduates who fit in the "non genius category" (a more politically correct term is needed). Without a viable piece of the jobs pie for the bottom 25th percentile from our high schools, trade schools and community colleges; America's economic/political system will likely be burdened by a growing population of underperforming adults. Many will depend on public safety net assistance. This population has rapidly grown with the world economy growth, indicating mushrooming future liabilities.
    2.Independent, socially responsible research and publicity by the private sector is needed explain the adverse implications about our Nation’s dependence on obsolete technologies and practices, and crumbling infrastructure. The use of obsolete energy sources and conversion technologies from the 19th and 20th Centuries is socially irresponsible, both nationally and internationally. Blood, governance, and dollars are wasted by continued use of obsolete/unsustainable energy sources, conversion technologies, and institutions. Sustainable energy policies are needed to predict costs with certainty to assure long-term investment. The energy game needs to be changed by simple, predictable (traditional) economic policy. It is not a mysterious, socialist plot because it has been accomplished by progressive capitalistic democracies, using tools such as published, long-term, annually incremented tax rates for continued use of obsolete technologies and practices. Likewise, public policy is needed to make $ for $ OFFSETS using anticipated energy tax revenues to REDUCE individual income taxes, to COMPENSATE for regional negatives, and to REDUCE the National Debt. Prolonged obsolescence seems to be the “bread and butter” for those benefitting from stealth subsidies at public expense. Recent disclosures have shown significant disinformation efforts by stealthily funded organizations, often as deductable business expenses, thereby diminishing tax collections. Further, our primary world trade competitor appears to be facing the future with game changing political decisions, absent the illusion of market-based solutions relying on casino-like lotteries, such as the much discussed cap and trade approach.
    3.Independent, socially responsible research and publicity is needed to better communicate to the public the legislative processes and issues. The public is often confused and divided by the spin of unknown agendas; while “unseen interests” write and lobby politicians to pass our laws. Congress and the President must get on the same page to establish a comprehensive national policy framework, NOT micromanagement processes, for new or revised programs. Members of Congress generally have limited technical/institutional knowledge of the wide range of programs before them. Reliance on “unseen interests” does not necessarily serve the public interest, making it a prime target for CSR efforts. Ideally, a national policy framework approach for legislation (for a specific program area - such as defense, welfare, etc - let’s call it NATIONAL OBJECTIVES for A, NATIONAL OBJECTIVES for B, etc.) should focus on establishing the legal authorization for the legislation: including the FRAMEWORK, MILESTONES, SCHEDULE, and BUDGET. An example of this type of law is found in federal Clean Water Act at . Most of the "meat" is described in the first 25 pages of this 234-page (YES 234 PAGES) law which is mostly as it was when adopted in 1972, and periodically updated as it has continuously implemented in all States and Territories. We have witnessed a generation of derailments by excessive legislative detail by elected political creatures who operate in the presence of secretive influence networks. As with the CWA, it all begins with the Congress and the President, and is then lawfully executed by professional policy/management overseers and staff, similar to what is done by the FDA, NTSB, FAA, National Science Foundation, etc. Congress is obligated to periodically hold oversight hearings to ensure focus and progress is being made to achieve the National Objectives. Legislative update and court decisions will add to the body of law. If a long-term, thoughtful process is followed, the risks and commotion of our lawmaking process could become a distant memory. If the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention could adopt the US Constitution in 1787, then the 500+ serving in today's Congress and the President should be capable taking prudent action to meet the needs of our 21st Century Nation before others smother our economy. Intelligent program management by accountable, qualified decision-makers who rely on science, visionary economics, and political sensitivity is needed. This approach seems far more agile and on-target than leadership by 500+ blubbering politicians, and a cadre of seditious pundits.
    4.Independent, socially responsible research and publicity is needed to better communicate the approaches to promote intelligent change. While it may seem that old-fashioned, “traditional economics” is a powerful game changer in capitalistic society, though it can be painful to an elected official facing re-election. Despite LABELING to promote “information-based behavior”, public expense results from continuing, confounding behaviors (smoking or junk food consumption), in the absence of immediate, actionable deterrence (aka the “young invincible” point of view noted during the 2009 healthcare debate). One point of view on this topic is discussed in .

    Thank you in advance for your consideration. Your replies are most welcome.



  • Geri Stengel

    I'll add one more trend. Small businesses matter. A number of corporations are expanding their social responsibility efforts, some in novel ways. They are aligning their resources to support small businesses, thus supporting their own customers and insuring their own long-term profitability.

    American Express and IBM have programs to help small business. Goldman Sachs is underwriting the 10,000 Small Businesses program, a $500 million initiative to unlock the growth and job-creation potential of 10,000 small businesses across the United States through greater access to business education, mentors and networks, and financial capital.
    This kind of corporate social responsibility can pay big dividends ( not just for small businesses, but the economy as a whole.

    The trickle down effect of large corporations supporting small businesses can stimulate growth and jobs around the country. Look for this to increase in 2011.