The adoption of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in Australia as a mainstream component of business is uneven. There are a number of outstanding examples of good practice and growing interest in looking beyond philanthropy to social investment and corporate-community partnerships. What is lacking is a business-based membership organization to promote leadership and collaboration and to generally ‘lift the bar’ of Australian CSR performance.
Many Australian subsidiaries of global corporations with a strong commitment to CSR are grappling with how to give global programmes a local focus. These include BP, Shell, Rio Tinto, Unilever, Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Cisco and Vodafone.
Corporate giving in Australia has increased by over 50 per cent in the last five years – from $386 million in 1997 to $586 million in 2001. An Australian Bureau of Statistics survey published in 2002 estimated the total of annual business donations and community contributions at $1.5 billion.
Corporate governance has a high profile in the wake of local corporate collapses. In April 2003 the Australian Stock Exchange released Guidelines on Corporate Governance – a set of ten principles that underlie good governance, though not mandatory. Triple bottom line reporting is seen to be useful, but again not mandatory.
Overall many companies are still struggling with the business case for CSR, feeling that it is difficult to demonstrate to analysts, market commentators and shareholders just how CSR will improve their business.
What are the drivers in Australia?
Reputation, being an employer of choice, attracting and retaining a highly motivated workforce, good community relations, concern for the environment, stronger links with stakeholders, market advantages, trust and respect through good governance, ability to attract capital through investment – these are just as important in Australia as elsewhere.
In 1999, the Australian Prime Minister established the ‘Prime Minister’s Community-Business Partnership’, with the aim of encouraging greater involvement of business in the country’s social fabric.
The Partnership’s achievements include creating tax incentives for philanthropy and corporate giving and establishing the Prime Minister’s Awards for Excellence in Business Community Partnerships, which have stimulated considerable business interest at both local and national level.
However, government can go only so far in a leadership role with business. The business community itself must take the initiative.
While the Australian Institute of Company Directors has encouraged debate about CSR and the issue is of significant interest among its members, it has not developed programmes and services in this area. Nor has the Business Council of Australia yet seen fit to take a high-profile leadership role in relation to CSR.
This absence of business leadership has slowed the take-up of CSR across the wider Australian business community. A recent visit by Julia Cleverdon and Richard Lambert of the UK-based Business in the Community (BiTC) has generated considerable interest in the value of a business-based membership organization that fosters a collaborative approach to building social capital.
Among Australian companies embracing CSR are some innovative programmes. Westpac Banking Corporation has taken a strong lead in making CSR an integral part of its business strategy, publishing its first social impact report in 2002. Cisco Systems won the PM’s Award for Excellence in 2001; its management style, embracing leadership, diversity and CSR, has enabled it to win the Australian ‘Employer of Choice’ award for the past two years. BHP Billiton is currently piloting a matched giving programme which matches volunteering time at a higher rate than donations. BHP Billiton won the PM’s Award for Excellence in 2002 for its partnership with Conservation Volunteers Australia.
So it is a mixed picture in Australia: great interest in employee volunteering, a real desire by many companies to be involved in the communities where they operate, but not yet widespread adoption of CSR as a core business strategy. There is still a way to go, but the signs are healthy and there are many good examples to build on.
 Positive Outcomes and CAF Australia worked with BHP Billiton to develop the matched giving programme.
Louise Redmond is Director of Positive Outcomes, an organization that helps companies to develop CSR strategies and programmes. She can be contacted at email@example.com