The 7th Edition of the Women’s Forum Global Meeting for the Economy and Society (www.womens-forum.com) took place on 13-15 October 2011 in Deauville, France.
One of the sessions in the main auditorium captured my attention when I saw that CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) was being considered as a business mega-trend for corporations in the future. The session was ‘What if corporate key drivers became totally different?’ and had a passionate opening presentation by James Allen, Partner and Co-Head of Bain & Company’s Global Strategy Practice. He listed five mega-trends:
1) Human resources: war for talent
2) Digital revolution: new wave of technological innovation
3) Sustainability: business taking responsibility
4) Supply chain management: competition for limited resources
5) The next billion consumers
Among the panel of four speakers were a retail CEO of a major UK financial company, an HR senior VP of a Chinese multinational computer company, the executive VP of a French multinational energy company, and finally the CEO of an American multinational non-alcoholic beverage corporation and manufacturer, retailer and marketer. Needless to say, diverse industries, global regions of business and seniority to speak on behalf of their corporations was not an issue.
They had the attention of some 1400 women to talk about how corporations in different sectors are dealing with constant (and fast) change in drivers, which jeopardizes strategic planning and decisions that can define their success and decrease volatility in their performance. The theme was very interesting and the session was fantastic, but I will focus here on the CSR part.
As one should expect, diverse business sectors focus on diverse themes for social responsibility. The environment issue was recurrent, followed by community development, international business exposure, multinational firms’ intention to assist local areas and economic development, and finally education. Not much was mentioned about art and culture. Here are some thoughts on some of those themes:
Environment: No doubt everyone’s intention is to make the world a greener place, and corporations are taking the stand to protect natural resources, increase their efficiency and of course reduce the carbon footprint.
International, community and economic development: As a Brazilian advocate for social change, I understand corporations’ efforts to act from within as they try to support employees, their families, the immediate communities around their offices, their cities and their regions, mainly linking these efforts with their product or consumer. And it is OK to align operations with social values! The trend for social impact seeks to bring sustainable growth and lasting change to the population in the surroundings of these firms. It is also common for a developing country like Brazil to have a wave of volunteers in the charity initiatives from international firms doing business in local ground. But is this really changing the way towards the sustainability goal? Are these resources really tackling the social challenges faced by the communities or just checking a box for volunteer work hours by the corporations? Of course it is a grassroots effort, but to really make a difference with the resources of time, expertise and fundraising, one should focus on sustainability to achieve lasting change in the community.
Education: Corporations understand that education (or lack of) plays an important role in their investment headcount. So some invest in enhancing the quality of teachers through training; others invest in better standard exams; some invest in school premises. A few also pay attention to the restructuring the governance system. Unfortunately for Brazil, private firms still leave the bulk of education responsibility in the government’s hands, but at least the matter was discussed in the forum, so it is not completely overlooked. There are of course organizations looking to transform education around the world. In Brazil, for example, we can mention Instituto Tellus, which was just funded by individuals and families (not corporations) to develop an inspiring internet portal as a tool for social innovations so that public managers can understand new public policy development for high impact. Their areas of focus should concentrate on education, health, communities, etc. Like Instituto Tellus, a number of nonprofits struggle every day to combat everything from poverty to the environment defense all over the world. These nonprofits, governments and corporations need to join forces and act together for better coordination of efforts and higher results.
A recent Bain & Company report says: ‘Nations (like Brazil) that are home to ‘the next billion’ consumers need to invest in their social infrastructure (healthcare and education) or risk stunting their development into more balanced economies, both in terms of stalling workforce productivity and consumer spending power.’ So, on one side we have nonprofits helping to solve social issues. On another we have corporations willing to invest resources for social change. And on the last side of the triangle we have the public sector, which has the power to enhance incentives for corporations, families and individuals to engage.
The combination of public and private sector, with the deep understanding of the social sector by the nonprofits, is very powerful. But putting together those three actors and being able to measure results is still a challenge. In theory, all elements want the same thing and are ready to play their role. The time to make the future is now, so the chance to make a difference on social issues throughout a combined effort is the way to create high impact in the social sphere. We have initiatives, investments and expertise. So why are we so frustrated when we try to measure results aiming at sustainability?
Elaine Smith is development manager at Instituto Geração.