Posts Tagged 'CSR'

Sanitation is king

After having hosted workshops for the “real WTO”, the World Toilet Organization, this May, we at betterplace have become more sensitive to the global toilet and sanitation issue. Thus today, over lunch, new team member Jens Best (we’ll introduce him more thorougly next week), on the spur of the moment, came up with an intriguing scenario for a promotion video for the WTO (you might here more about it in a few weeks time).

Then, this evening, I came across an article in the New York Times, combining my passion for anthropology, my newly found interest in sanitation and a meeting I had this week with Andreas Scholz-Fleischmann, member of the managing board of BSR, the local Berlin city department of sanitation.

The NYT-featured anthropologist Robin Nagle, who teaches at New York University has been studying trash collectors for years. To her, city employees who sweep your streets and collect your garbage are “folk sociologists.”

They can give you a demographic and sort of a sociological and anthropological interpretation of a given block or a given section of the city that’s remarkably detailed

Nagle writes about the image problem NY sanitation workers have. To counteract the stigma, she and some colleagues at NYU want to create a garbage museum.

We have museums dedicated to the police, to firefighters, to mass transit, to various ethnicities, to skyscrapers, even to sex. But oddly, there is nothing devoted to sanitation, though we cannot live without it. It’s plainly more important than sex.

(No way, you say? Then try this simple test. Can you get through the day without having sex? O.K., now ask yourself if you can get through the day without having to toss something into the garbage. We rest our case.)

Reading this, I was struck by the power of clever advertising. Because over the past couple of years, BSR, the Berlin sanitation company, has managed to turn its reputation around. With the help of creatively worded campaigns, the image of the men in the orange overalls has shifted dramatically, loosing much, if not all of its stigma.  

The same shift in public opinion is possible, if companies take CSR seriously and communicate it successfully to their stakeholders. 


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. 

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’

A basis for informed choices

On my desk today was a video of a (very respectable, “senior”) round table discussion at the National Press Club in Washington about Charity Fraud and Reform, posted on the online site of Contribute . At the same time, a reader of Aishahs latest blogpost on online fundraising platforms, pointed us to an article critical of GiveMeaninga Canadian-based donation platform (Thanks, Tom Newman). 

The charity reformers in the video are highly critical of excessive compensation of many top-end executives in the non-profit sector, some of which make 1 million US$ p.a. and more. They also point out that charities in the US are mainly accountable for very formal legal and financial aspects of their work, but not for the actual use of their money. One participant, Trent Stamp of Charity Navigator, highlights the fact that tax-deductable charity 501(c) status is handed out in the US like “candy to babies”, i.e. is far too easy to get. As an indication of their dubiousness a number of non-profits are operating in all US states, except the one they are residing in, thus evading official scrutiny. 

Every start-up has to spent money to get going. Self-exploitation is fine for a start, but you need a sound business model taking over pretty soon in order to sustain your efforts. betterplace has opted for a model, whereby the operating costs as well as the transaction costs are covered by fees companies pay in order to be able to present their CSR engagement on betterplace. Until we are able to fully rely on those fees to cover our operating costs, we pay minimum wages to some team members (others work on a completely pro-bono basis) and are fortunate to have enlisted the financial backing of individual supporters, who believe in the idea of betterplace and are also actively engaged in its day to day operation. 

We also believe that transparency is of utmost importance to create trust, the backbone of betterplace. Thus we fully disclose our business model and partnerships, 100% of donations are forwarded to the projects they are intended for. And we make sure to work as efficiently as possible. Here the internet helps us a lot: we rely on viral marketing, we cut communication and other operating costs.  

With Trent Stamp of charity navigator I cherish the vision that open and transparent platforms such as betterplace will lead to a real basis of comparison between different charities and grassroots-initiatives and that the fraud, apparently as pervasive in the non-profit scene as in the corporate world, will be more visible to the individual donor, who will be able to make much more informed choices of how to make a difference. I am convinced that we are not part of the problem, but of the solution.