Marc Gunther of offered up a well written and provocative invitation this morning: Let’s Do Away With CSR!

Not merely the words and the idea but the infrastructure: CSR departments, CSR reports, CSR conferences and CSR executives.
And, as long as we’re at it, let’s think about ditching the triple bottom line, the pursuit of shared value, corporate citizenship and especially, yuk, the idea that stakeholders deserve a say in how to run a business.
All of these are, at best, distractions and, at worst, ways of thinking about business that create a separation between a company’s core business and its impact on the world. Both ought to be life-enhancing. No more and no less.

I couldn’t agree more. Corporate Social Responsibility, for all its good intentions and real accomplishments, can be a mashup of philanthropy, community affairs, marketing, compliance and EH&S – all good things, but largely peripheral to the value-adding core and driving purpose of most businesses. The key questions, to my mind, are

“What are you – and your business – really here to do? What is its purpose for being – and yours for working there? What is its fundamental value proposition in the world?”

If your CSR activities support that purpose, well and good. If they make up for but don’t transform what your company does, I’m less interested.
It’s not the first time we’ve heard these concerns, but it’s a timely and welcome reflection, especially as more and more people are talking about “embedding” CSR and sustainability into their business. (The words are often used interchangeably, but that’s a topic for another time.)
The intention is good, but the process is often too mechanistic. Gunther quotes Carol Sanford, author of the excellent new book, The Responsible Corporation, who says

“The biggest challenge for a company that aspires to be a responsibility business is to stop working on parts and start recognizing and working on whole systems.”

As I told the Conference Board in 2001,

“The strongest approaches are systemic rather than piecemeal, strategic rather than merely operational, integrated with the business agenda rather than isolated as ‘merely EH&S,’ focused on meeting human needs. The boldest approaches embrace the challenge of transforming industrial society, with products, services and whole businesses that not only reduce, but perhaps eliminate or even reverse, impact on the environment: cars that clean the air; factories that clean the water; buildings – and cities – with ‘zero ecological footprint’; companies that make more money selling less ‘stuff’.”

And in Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras observed that
“A fundamental element of a visionary company is a core ideology — core values and sense of purpose beyond just making money.”

Of course it’s one thing to say this, and quite another to do it. “How,” I asked in The Truth About Green Business, “do you ‘invest in purpose’? How do you make it practical? And profitable?”

Keep your eye on the ball. Make your purpose visible and present in your everyday conversations. Serving your company’s purpose should be a continuous, systematic practice, and all too often, companies visit the question of purpose only in retreats or mission statements.
Put plans, alliances, and designs to the “Purpose Test.” Does this option move you toward or away from your purpose? Identify activities that don’t fit your purpose and drop or change them.
But don’t drop the profit test. You won’t stay in business-no matter how noble your purpose-if you can’t pay the bills. (Just remember that paying the bills isn’t the purpose of your business.)
Tell the truth-to your employees, stakeholders, and customers- and yourself. This means clearly communicating your purpose, truthfully measuring whether your actions and results support that purpose and bringing them into alignment when they don’t.
Don’t compromise. There’ll be plenty of people who’ll tell you that purpose is pie in the sky and will cost you money. I don’t believe them and neither do the best business leaders I know.

But it goes deeper than that:

  • to strategic sustainability roadmaps that provide a comprehensive view of how sustainability touches every part of the enterprise;
  • to shared frameworks that activate dozens – or thousands – of eyes and ears in discovery and innovation toward a common purpose;
  • to feedback systems that give every employee a clear line of sight that connects their decisions and actions, and the impact of those actions, on the goals, impacts and value of the company.

That’s something much more than CSR, deeper than the metaphor of “embedding CSR into your DNA.” I think cybernetician, poet and my mentor Stafford Beer came closer when he wrote about The Heart of Enterprise. The heart, to the ancients, was the repository of courage. And courage is what’s needed to re-design business, to re-invent the global economy, to build new worlds.

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