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.