Archive for June, 2008

CSR in Germany – Passing Fancy or Necessity?

The supplement to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, CSR-Unternehmen, Gesellschaft, Verantwortung, (CSR: Enterprises, Society, Responsibility) has been lying on my desk for a few days now.  Obviously, we at betterplace take a huge interest in this topic, since our platform offers companies the opportunity to present their social commitment in a completely novel and transparent way, motivating both their employers and customers.

However, as a series of articles show all too clearly, Germany is anything but a pioneer in the field of corporate social responsibility. According to Prof. Dr. Henry Schäfer of the University of Stuttgart, many enterprises point to the strict legal standards in Germany.  “Let foreign enterprises come up to our standards first,” they scoff, and dismiss CSR as a short-lived management fancy.

What these enterprises fail to see, however, is that a positive public image can boost their value enormously.  Abroad, executives are making sustainability issues their own in increasing numbers, as a means to drive shareholder value.  Rating agencies – whatever one might think of them, considerable differences in quality abound – prepare rankings based on up to 200 individual environmental and social criteria.  “An environmental and social performance that is reactive and only complies with requirements imposed by law is … not enough,” and many enterprises fail to gain a position in a new field that in fact opens up the opportunity to gain a competitive advantage.

Corporate Volunteering

It was in particular the statements concerning Corporate Volunteering that were an eye-opener for me: almost 40% of all German employees do voluntary work, but only 19% of them feel that their employer supports them in their efforts.

38% of the employees surveyed stated that their company does not know about their employees’ voluntary activities after their regular job – and this even though more than half of the employees would be willing to represent their company, for instance by wearing t-shirts bearing the company logo.

As a betterplacian, of course, I marvel at how easy it would be to make this engagement, in whatever form it may take, visible for colleagues and customers.  Just imagine: one click on the company page at betterplace will not only show you the full range of its social commitments, but also a map of the many initiatives that individual employees are volunteering for!  And not only are these initiatives presented in a plausible and comprehensible way, employers and customers can also actively support them themselves.

Nice to have or essential?

A while ago, German companies considered environmental awareness to be a “nice to have” but not “essential” aspect. In the meantime, enterprises want to actively tackle environmental questions, and in fact they must. This means it is only a matter of time until corporate responsibility in the broader sense (including family-friendly company policies, transparent accounts of its sponsoring activities and the promotion of civil society as a whole) will also be viewed as a vital element of enterprise value.

Critics of the CSR trend claim that this is just a way of taking marketing a bit further, albeit using different means.  This reflects the view that an act can only be taken to be a positive one if it is unselfish, says Dorothee Belz, a member of the management of Microsoft Germany.  “But this zero-sum thinking fails to recognize … the actual mechanisms of CSR efforts, which are oriented towards the exchange of social values.”

CSR may be a buzzword currently all the rage in the business press and by consultancy firms; correctly interpreted, however, it offers an opportunity to enterprises to enter into a constructive dialogue with their employees and customers.   Companies can use this communication channel to find out what really matters to their employees and customers, and are able target their social commitment accordingly and improve it. 


A Lion against Child Labour

Gold Lion in Cannes in the category Design. (from osocio
Child labour is a big problem in India. People in India are averse to contributing for social causes because they feel their contributions won’t make a difference. The objective of this piece from the Care Foundation was to reverse the trend and drive donations towards the child labour cause. 

Each individual’s contribution can help alter the current situation of a child; this was the essential message to be communicated in the ambient space.

A life-sized statue of a child, dressed in rags carrying a box above his head was sculpted and placed against a wall backdrop. The box filled with some weights was tied to a rope running over a set of pulleys and attached to a donation box at the other end. The words ‘Your contribution can end child labour’ was painted over it. This installation was placed in several malls with high volume footfalls across the city.

This fits neatly with our conviction – and experience! – that even small donations can really make a difference. my favourite example is Ann Wambuas orphanage in Mombasa.



On Sunday I attended the confirmation ceremony of Anton Kleihues, a fifteen year old from Berlin, who is also active in betterplace junior. At the end of the church ceremony, Anton got up announcing that the collection would go to Choki Traditional Arts School in Bhutan on

Amongst his group they had discussed various projects the donation could go to, but as Anton was familiar with Choki and had been involved in fundraising for the school, which supports underpriviedged children in Bhutan by giving them a solid professional education in the traditional arts, he was able to persuade the group to donate the collection to it. A total of 1150 Euro came together and I am very thankful to Anton for his commitment.

As a recent article in the New York Times points out, more and more teenagers are getting involved in charity.

Donating $10 to buy a mosquito net to save an African child frommalaria has become a hip way to show you care, especially for teenagers. … Unusual allies, like the Methodist and Lutheran Churches, theNational Basketball Association and the United Nations Foundation, are stoking the passion for nets that prevent malaria. The annual “American Idol Gives Back” fund-raising television special has donated about $6 million a year for two years. The music channel VH1 made a fund-raising video featuring a pesky man in a mosquito suit.

Part of what has helped the campaign catch on is its sheer simplicity and affordability — $10 buys one net to save a child. Nothing But Nets, the best-known campaign, has raised $20 million from 70,000 individuals, most of it in donations averaging $60.



Use your cognitive surplus

The cognitive surplus of the web and how we can use it for make the world a better place.

Recently I have seen the speech of Professor Clay Shirky held at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco on 23th of april 2008. He brought up a good example to picture what is happening with the web today and how it can be used to activate people more.

Two numbers. Wikipedia as it is today consists of 100 Million hours of cognitive input from its contributors around the world. A big number. But if you take the number of hours TV is watched per annum in the U.S. only – 200 Billion hours(!!) – than you slowly start realizing what potential lies within the interaction between humans enabled by the web. If the people would do „wikipedia-style“-things online instead of watching TV there could be 2000 wikipedia-like projects more – every year.

Well, of course not all the interaction online is as senseful as writing a good wikipedia article. Facebook-entries, myspace-postings, adding & tagging your photos on flickr, reading & commenting articles of your favorite online newspaper – all different qualities of „acting“, but all are more senseful than watching TV, because in one way or the other they connecting us more and more. For a better basic understanding of this aspect I recommend the great video of Dr. Michael Wesch of the cultural antropological department of Kansas State University „The Machine is Us/ing Us“.

Now lets focus on social networks. There are many of them, mega-sites like facebook, orkut or myspace, business oriented ones like Xing or LinkIn, and thousands of special interest communities for/with/from young parents, stamp collectors, sportfans….you name it.

All of this online activity reflects into the real world. We can talk about the newest pictures on flickr, we meet new people with same interest cause we first encountered them online.

And yes, you can not only meet friends online, you can also contribute with your money, your time, your spirit and your skills for make the world a better place via websites like

The web of trust on will show you the connections you have with people who are fascinate by one of the projects people in need for help put online. You can read their blogs, you can see the progress of the supported projects via the blog entries and photos on each project site.

So, I just wanted to show that to become an active member of the betterplace-society will not „cost“ valuable time of your life. Acting on is just one, very important, aspect of the liberation of cognitive (and therefore real) surplus which is created by Web 2.0, by beginning to use the web to make the planet more just, more green and more peaceful.

It is not difficult, because we all want to be part of a mankind which is walking towards a better understanding. Start today by selecting your first project on, by telling your friends of, become another knot of the web of trust and use your cognitive surplus to give joy and encouragement to people in need of it.

Social Design on

Osocio, the highly entertaining and eye-opening website for social advertising and non-profit campaigns from all over the world, currently presents the Social Design Video in which betterplace also has a part.

Together with the team of the Social Design Site  we are planning a film festival for autumn 2008 in Berlin with films, dealing with the design of social relationships in the widest sense. We’ll keep you up to date.

Welcome Linus Behnke!

From one moment to the other he went completely pale.

Till and Annika were on their way to a business date in Hamburg. They had just boarded the ICE train in Berlin and had been travelling for barely 15 minutes. When Till’s phone rang.

It was Svenja speaking. She explained to her man that their baby decided to arrive early – now, to be precise.

Did he first scream, race up and down the aisle, and then get pale? Or the other way round? Even though Annika was there to witness this impressive scene it will forever stay one of those “you had to be there moments”.

Annika found the conductor in the train kitchen. “This train needs to be stopped.” “I’m afraid we can only do that in the case of a medical emergency”, said the conductor. “Well, I’m afraid we have a medical emergency”, she replied, “My colleague’s getting a baby.”

Within no time (what, to Till, must have seemed an eternity) they had the ICE train stop at some random provincial station of a town called Ludwigslust. Then, they had a second ICE train, this one going back to Berlin, stop there as well to pick Till up.

This act of extraordinary customer support is, to say the least, quite uncommon for the Deutsche Bahn. Germans (and other regular DB customers) know about their infamous reputation.

Anyway. The guy in charge of coordinating the departures and arrvials of the trains (a.k.a. the hero) told the conductor to tell Till all he wanted is a crate of beer for this favour. The future dad, in the meantime gone stoical and on auto pilot, asked Annika to write down this guy’s email address… noboby will ever know if Till envisioned the crate of beer as email attachment.

23 hours – and four midwives’ shifts – later Linus Behnke is born. In the morning of Thursday June 5th of 2008.

Welcome Linus! And congratulations to the proud parents! The betterplace Team is very happy for all of you.

Islam and Corporate Social Responsibility

Hanniah Tariq, in an interesting post on Social Edge, asks, what role cultural differences play with regards to CSR. She writes:

Clearly expectations with respect to business vary from region to region and developing countries in particular provide a socio-economic, religious and cultural context for corporate responsibility, which is in many ways different from developed countries. Hence it is arguable that a different path must be followed for different regions, as distinct drivers exist for them and as throughout the development of the role of responsible business in society, lessons learnt continue to characterize it as a contextual business response to external and internal drivers rather than an absolute model that can be followed and replicated in developing countries.

Moving on to the Islamic world, she asks:

1. whether a different socio-economic, religious and cultural context calls for a different corporate responsibility strategy? 

2. is it prudent and useful for the Islamic world to try and derive principles for CR based on Islamic economic principles?

These questions resonnate with a move towards „culture“ within the development establishment since the late 1990s.

Culture matters …

I am thinking here of the 2000 publication of  Samuel Huntingtons and Lawrence Harrisons Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. In another such endeavour, in 2005, the German development agency GTZ (Society for Technical Cooperation) and the Goethe Institute, responsible for the dissemination of German culture abroad, initiated a Culture and Development cooperation project, arguing that

experience has shown that a lack of knowledge and comprehension of foreign cultures and values is one of the main reasons why projects and programmes fail. A decisive factor for successful cooperation is … an improvement in the intercultural competence of actors on both sides. Besides knowledge of and respect for the other side’s values and attitudes, this includes developing an awareness of one’s own culture and values.

In order to start this process, the GTZ hosted a number of round table discussions with its partners around the world to discuss the differing meanings of the term „progress“ in the various regions.

Since, Lawrence Harrision has completed an ambitious Culture Matters Research Project (CMRP), seeking to identify “cultural values and attitudes [that are] facilitators of, or obstacles to, progress” so as to develop “value- and attitude-change guidelines … for the promotion of progressive values and attitudes.”

… but how?

While as an anthropologist I certainly agree that culture, understood as the life-style and values of groups of people, does play a role in development (and thus potentially also in CSR practices), the understanding of culture in these discussions is all too often incredibly mechanistic, decontextualisted and a-historic.

Most authors assume that huge groups of people – whole nations, religious communities, ethnic groups – share the same practices and values. This assumption lacks any empirical basis – instead what can be shown is that even in small villages we find a heterogenic mix of voices and practices and that with the global circulation of goods, ideas and people, lifestyles everywhere are becoming more mixed and differentiated.

Very often our ideas about „a culture“ are shaped by the interests of elites, who manage to speak for a supposedly homogenous group. In order to gain a public voice and political or economic power, they very often simply ignore the realities on the ground.

Islamic Economics

I am thinking here, for example, about Islamic economics, viewed by many as a traditional, religiously rooted alternative to Western capitalism.

Continue reading ‘Islam and Corporate Social Responsibility’