There is very little worse than feeling powerless to control your life. This is a common experience for a great number of people, many of whom end up feeling this helplessness as a result of a complex set of circumstances. The number of people who need help from charities, social enterprises, community organisations, governments, family and friends etc. is significant in Australia. While not perhaps as visible and obvious on a day-to-day basis, the numbers are serious. I will avoid citing them here for a simple reason – homework for readers. I think we generally care more for things when some effort is expended and in this case a bit of Googling wouldn’t hurt; we are more likely to remember the facts by doing bit of research.
In my view, the importance of understanding this issues is that it could have a major impact on how corporate social responsibility can be sustained. It could also grow to become a genuine force towards a better future for Australia where inclusive business and smarter integration of all human endeavours become more collaborative. I am always pleasantly surprised to hear corporate leaders who, when speaking about their organisation’s CSR initiative, do not extol the ‘we are proud…we help those in need’ mantra.
Instead of free self-promo talks as is often the case, it is refreshing to hear a corporate executive speaking about issues that clearly demonstrate that they and their staff do not prescribe to the limiting ‘charity starts at home’ adage; a principle whereby people only help if helping means immediate return. This reminds me of a view espoused by an Australian philosopher (and professor of ethics) who argued that any person able to help but unwilling to is not a complete person. I extend this argument to include the community and by default any business enterprise or organisation; given that they are also first and foremost a community.
The major issue, an issue that remains unresolved and seriously damaging to our society in the long run, is the massive disparity in the way not-for-profits can fulfil their mandate and solve and or at least manage complex socio-economic societal challenges. The not-for-profit sector has accumulated a lot of expertise in delivering their missions, due largely to high concentration of the NFP workforce who are well educated and well skilled to deal with issues ranging from homelessness, young people’s issues, social isolation, disabilities, environmental degradation, refugee resettlement, aged care and so on. However its capacities are seriously compromised due to chronic income instability. Today a significant portion of a NFP’s operating costs go towards marketing and commercial activities to ensure that a dollar finds its way from a charitable citizen, a government agency or a corporate giant into its bank account. This is not an easy gig. Conveying the story of a homeless person who lost everything in an unfortunate accident before ending up on the street may be a way to get people to help; but this only works for a moment because more compelling stories are constantly emerging. This competition for the ‘attention’ of the paying customer is derailing our personal morality and the ethics of many businesses and governments. We start to judge the causes and issues we support as if we are investors in a tech start-up promising a massive windfall. The problem with the symbolic donating of money to a charity is that we forget to focus on the importance of expecting nothing in return; and thereby embarrassingly reduce pure altruism to a business transaction.
I, like increasing number of professionals, do of course understand that the business community expects a return on investment and that every dollar given out needs to be justified. My concern is that not-for-profits are not in the best position to provide a diverse range of ‘returns’ to a diverse investor community. An average Joe on the street donating $50 to a charity differs from a government donating $50, which again differs from a corporate giant donating $50. The motivations, expectations and contracts (real and assumed) vary too much for most not for profits to meet their investing partner’s needs. So, as a strategy, non-profits have learned to ‘mimic’ their partners in the way they talk to them. They sound like government agencies when they are delivering programs funded by governments, like private businesses when they are sponsored by a corporate and like our neighbours when they raise some funds doing a sausage sizzle. The beneficiaries of the programs probably don’t really care where the funds come from as they are pressed with more immediate problems in their own lives. However, sometimes they are encouraged to ‘tell their story’ to a sympathetic audience as a warm-up before a fundraising event.
Whilst this may sound cynical to some, I personally think we should step back a bit and take a broader view of the current state of play. There are enough clear indicators that the issues in respect to social challenges are becoming increasingly more complex. The fact that the number of people who rely on anti-depressants has doubled in the past 10 years in Australia thus making us a global leader, could be one of many indicators worth examining in more depth. The current means of support to non-profits is also shaky as it largely depends on market forces and consumer sentiment instead of a deeper sense of personal morality and a vision for a better society. The lack of joint collaborative effort between non-profits, private citizens, governments, the corporate sector, private philanthropists, media, politicians, influencer bodies (think tanks, research institutions) and many others should be the first port of call. It is here where we need to start to explore, with unwavering commitment, the possibilities of mega collaboration that would end with better business models and more efficient strategies for solving current and emerging problems.
My long term bugbear is the white elephant in the room; the lack of a solid national CSR strategy. The business community has been always good and willing to point out what could be improved on the nonprofit or government’s side. At times they also issued calls to their own. But how often have we seen business leaders calling for raised stakes in CSR? I think this is the best time to seriously put a national CSR strategy on the agenda to ensure that many things work better. Things like corporates spending more time leading their staff into better collaboration with non-profits, rather than surveying individual pet interests and then responding by corporate volunteering excursions, promoting their CSR with marketing language used for promotion of their commercial services, etc. CSR first and foremost should be about a shared, inspiring and real story that brings all parties to the table with similar levels of understanding of the problem at hand, similar levels of commitment and an aligned and jointly designed collaborative strategy.
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Categories: CSR Ideas