Even with many at the oars, someone has to have a hand on the tiller to keep the boat on course.
By Susan Arnot Heaney, Corporate Responsibility Consultant and Fellow, Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship
There is a concept that arises every now and then in Corporate Responsibility (CR) discussions: if practitioners succeed, we will put ourselves out of business.
I respectfully disagree.
The reasoning behind the belief is admirable: that if CR efforts succeed, the principles will be embedded across business practices. In others words, creating a business process in which CR is “driven from every seat.” But the conclusion that CR officers or departments will become redundant does not exactly follow.
First, let me confirm that I do understand CR teams will probably never be large. I may be optimistic, but I am also realistic.
But the teams do and should exist.
Why should the CSR Team Exist?
Think about finance and accounting. Financial practices are a part of the daily tasks of people at every level and department of a company, from an administrative assistant processing expense reports to the head of procurement making multimillion-dollar purchases. Yet, this universality of financial responsibility does not drive anyone to suggest an end to the CFO role or the finance and accounting teams. Someone still needs to lead the practice.
Another example, perhaps more similar to the CR function, is Diversity and Inclusion. Even if a company has implemented D&I principles and believes they are truly embedded across the organizational structure, a team is still needed to keep the commitment robust and effective.
For nearly 16 years, I had the privilege of working for Avon and the Avon Foundation for Women, including the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade. In the case of the Avon Crusade, we DID dream of putting ourselves out of business through an end to breast cancer.
But CR is different.
A Measuring Stick for Impact
One of the most popular phrases these days is “what gets measured gets done.” We should also consider the CR team as the cross functional “measuring stick” that keeps a company and its commitments on track. Employees deal with immediate business pressures of deadlines, cost, margin, stock price, competitors and more. Even the most committed individual is often hard pressed to find time, resources and solutions to CR-related issues on top of their day-to-day role.
That is where the CR team steps in to educate and facilitate and serve as a business partner.
And let’s not forget about transparency and disclosure. Without a CR team, who is expected to invest time and resources on reporting?
To use a sailing metaphor, even with many at the oars, someone has to have a hand on the tiller to keep the boat on course.
A Growing Profession…But Where Are CSR Professionals Headed?
Fortunately, it seems that there is indeed some progress in the acceptance of CR as a true corporate practice. The recent report from Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship -- Leading Across the Organization: Profile of the Professionals 2013 – reports:
“In 2006, only 7 percent of the respondents worked in a corporate citizenship department. By 2012, it was 13 percent, almost a twofold increase over 2006.”
Yes, the numbers are small, but they are statistically significant.
My own CR career at Avon echoes the BCCCC report, which finds CR housed under many departments, especially public affairs and communications. During my tenure at Avon, I spent time at the Avon Foundation, which is a public charity, then was tapped for the newly minted CR practice that was part of the Corporate Communications team, only to have the CR role moved to Global HR, and finally to a small but separate CR team.
Through all of the organizational shifts, our actual CR roles and responsibilities – and the core commitment – were unchanged and unwavering.
If you really want to know where CR is headed, ask the next generation. Year after year, Net Impact reports that students and recent graduates want careers that give back, and they dream of an actual CR title. A recent piece in the South China Morning Post reported “a rise in CSR business education” to fill the need of corporations of tomorrow.
Meanwhile, some who are already IN the profession speak of its demise.
When it comes to the CR profession, I am reminded of Mark Twain, who stated that reports of his death were premature. Or, as it was more plaintively put by a Monty Python plague victim, “we’re not dead yet.”