On May 6, the Better Business Bureau of New York presented Responsibility, Sustainability and ROI: Doing Well While Doing Good at the TimeLife Building in Rockefeller Center. Over the course of the morning conference, panels and speakers discussed the changing - and rapidly expanding - role of corporate social responsibility in the business context.
In his opening remarks, Gordon J. Campbell, President and CEO, United Way of New York City, spoke of partnerships between nonprofits and business as win-win propositions in which the nonprofit can gain resources and access to expertise. Meanwhile, a business can benefit by knowing it will get a good return on its investment because of the nonprofit's expertise in its community. At the same time, such partnerships offer businesses a way to enhance their brand in the marketplace and to foster high morale among their employees.
Featured speaker George Pohle, Vice President-Global Leader, Business Strategy Practice at IBM Global Business Services, spoke on lessons learned on the power of socially responsible business to lead change. Mr. Pohle reported on his work in IBM's global survey of 250 business executives worldwide, the results of which were published the day of the BBB program. He noted that the survey revealed that business executives are beginning to see CSR not as an obligation or even a responsibility, but rather, as a sustainable growth strategy. Mr. Pohle and his co-author, Jeff Hittner, claimed that their findings and analysis led them to three dynamics that companies should understand and act upon when dealing with corporate social responsibility, as follows: 1. The impact of CSR for business is being seen less as a cost, and more as an opportunity for growth; 2. Information about companies is transitioning from visibility to transparency; and 3. Relationships with the community and NGOs are changing from containment to active engagement.
The authors of the report concluded that while business leaders have long been accountable to their stakeholders, these relationships are changing, in part because of the emergence of the Internet and its creation of a global community, as well as the actual globalization in which companies are taking part. Companies must now answer to local labor, environmental, and social issues wherever their companies, partners, vendors and suppliers operate. Mr. Pohle closed his remarks with the following suggestions for attaining sustainable growth through CSR: 1. Align and incorporate CSR with business strategy and integrate it across all operational functions, thus making it easy to invest (not spend) the funds necessary to achieve its objectives; 2. Implement an open information strategy for more transparent information sharing with multiple stakeholders; 3. Leverage transparency to increase the level of engagement of key constitutents and customers.
The first "Thought Leader" panel, "Making the Social investment Pay Off: Key Issues and Trends," was moderated by Timothy J. McClimon, president of the American Express Foundation, and included Carol Cone, Chair of Cone Inc.; Deborah Holmes, Americas Director-Corporate Social Responsibility at Ernst & Young; and David Vidal, Director of Research-Global Corporate Citizenship, The Conference Board.
The three panelists were first asked what trends they saw - in addition to the more obvious ones, such as climate change - emerging in the CSR space. Mr. Vidal responded with two words: China awakening. By this he referred not only to the growth of markets - import, export, capital - but also to its thinking vis-a-vis new technology. Recently, he had heard, a University of California technology professor had been contacted by a representative of the provincial government of Inner Mongolia and asked how the region's companies might "leapfrog" to the best green technologies - in other words, how to jump past the environmental technology of American companies, where we are moving at our own "comfortable pace."
Ms. Holmes first mentioned the education crisis as a worldwide phenomenon. In the United States, less than 40 percent of high school students go on to college; the numbers are similar in Western Europe. And while we think of China and India as "human resource powerhouses," their educational systems are still very lacking, let alone the underdeveloped nations in Africa, South America and Asia.
Ms. Holmes pointed to a second, and more overarching trend: the continuing retreat by government in roles we traditionally think of as governmental roles, and the increasing expectation that business will fulfill those roles. She used the example of Hurricane Katrina, after which Home Depot and other businesses jumped in to help - and the government "sat on its hands." She commented that globally, many countries have governments that are more or less considered failed states, or else hopelessly corrupt. In some of those areas, businesses have provided and continue to provide structure and economic growth.
Finally, Ms. Cone noted the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots, both locally and globally. She elaborated that this chasm represents in some respects an "opportunity" for good corporate citizens to have impacts on their own communities through partnerships with local nonprofits, as well as globally by working with microfinancing and entrepreneurially focused nonprofits.
The second "Thought Leader" panel, entitled "Transparency: The Holy Grail of Social Responsibility," was moderated by C. Lee Peeler, President and CEO of the BBB National Advertising Review Council, and featured Edward Chansky of Levett Rockwood, P.C., Rhonda McLean, Associate General Counsel, Time Inc., and Susan Puflea, Executive Vice President and Director-Change Responsibility Practice, GolinHarris. Mr. Chansky focused on ways in which nonprofits can partner with businesses for the benefit of both. Ms. McLean and Ms. Puflea presented the CSR histories of their respective companies and how each has evolved over time.