Since the Companies Act, 2013 came into effect, businesses have been required to spend 2 percent of their net profits on Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR. According to the Prime Database, Indian businesses spent a Rs. 8,345 crore on various CSR activities in 2015-16, against Rs. 6,526 crore the previous year. I will not be surprised to learn some businesses did it grudgingly. But it is a welcome sign in our times, when consumption and poverty are both unhindered, and capitalism is widely celebrated. Laws like this have the ability to keep things more just, and open up opportunities for those who don’t have the privilege of higher education and air-conditioned cubicles.
But there are always two sides to a story. A few years ago, I had a conversation with an NGO leader who put his organization’s challenge with fundraising quite succinctly, “It is hard when all you have to sell is ‘feel good’”. Business is a game of economics. The global economy is almost never at its healthiest, and in a climate like this, some might find it justified if profit-centric businesses shy away from social good, or grudge when they are legally obliged to deliver it. What can be sold to businesses other than the said “feel good” for them to truly accept their social responsibility?
To begin, employee engagement is a direct benefit of CSR. For one, employees learn to appreciate the ever-fleeting sense of purpose from their jobs. A quick glance through Twitter and Facebook will reveal a generation that is much more engaged in social and political discourse. A lot of it has been dismissed as armchair activism without investigation or understanding. Statistics, on the other hand, speak a different story. According to ‘The 2020 Workplace’ study, an astounding 80 percent of the new workforce cares deeply about its employers’ contribution to, and impact on, society. Why should we shy away from channelling a voice as strong as this, or at the very least, testing how honest it is?
CSR is also great for reputation. In my years as a PR consultant, I have seen many organizations engage in social good for some quick and easy positive media coverage. As a young professional, I judged it. But common sense and maturity dictate that idealism is overrated, if not impossible, and sometimes, the end does justify the means.
Clearly, CSR has its benefits, and is not just a cost. It can make a lasting impact on a brand’s internal and external reputation, but only when it is done right.
Collective effort trumps convenience
It might sound funny, but I say it in all seriousness – organizations in general find it extremely hard to part with liquid cash. However, when the law demands contributions, donation is the most convenient route. Making CSR a collective effort can lead to great ideas and increased collaboration within teams. Surely it is not hard to see that this form of collaboration is a little more useful than collaborating over beer pong?
An example that comes to mind is of a global MNC that sends interested employees to developing countries for three months. These employees impart business, financial, marketing, and technology skills to make non-profits and small businesses more profitable. Not only does the programme enable global mobility for employees and deep social impact, it also sealed the organization’s reputation as a corporate citizen in some of the world’s largest, most rapidly growing economies.
Care about the causes that your employees care about
Crowdsourcing ideas is a great way to get the show on the road. Most of your young workforce has a cause (or ten) it cares about deeply. Ask them what it is and how they foresee the organization making an impact. Then bring together brains, hands, and legs to make it happen.
A technology giant and former client used to do a brilliant job of it. It had some employees who cared deeply about jail inmates, especially minors, getting a second chance in life. The organization pooled in resources to develop skills in the city’s largest juvenile delinquent facility. It helped inmates transform into productive members of society after their release. I happened to attend one such skill development session a few years ago, and saw some very heart-warming sights. The organization’s employees spent a happy, sunny afternoon inside a prison, collaborating with each other and teaching computer skills, music, and languages to young men and women to help them pave their way to a better life. There was much laughter, lots of conversation, and a sense of camaraderie, which ensured that nobody complained about having to “work” over the weekend.
Care about impact, reputation will follow
Not only the press – even your employees are intelligent enough to see when CSR initiatives are just a flash in the pan. Short-term programmes rarely have impact, so they do nothing to engage employees. Ensuring that you have a long-term plan in place for your organization’s CSR initiative helps your narrative with your external audience as well as your employees.
As a long-time media relations and communication professional, I can tell you with certainty that organic likes, retweets, positive media coverage, and employee engagement can and do follow on the heels of long-term impact.
CSR is an incredibly complex space, one where the lessons of humanities, math, and commerce play on common ground. The only way to simplify it is for organizations to see the benefits of philanthropy in business terms. Can you imagine the impact businesses around the world, with their loaded bank accounts and large manpower, can have on the issues plaguing society if we could just accept that CSR needs to be a win-win proposition for all involved?
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