Chartered Management Institute: In my opinion

Chartered Management Institute Companion Ann Chant, director general, HM Revenue & Customs, argues that CSR should be a two-way partnership.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The term corporate social responsibility (CSR) has gained common currency over the past 20 years or so. If we were starting from here, we might come up with a better name, now that the full range of activities that the term tries to encompass have been defined more clearly. But rather than waste time trying to work out a precise definition, I suggest that a company thinking about engaging in CSR just goes ahead - the beneficial results will be so obvious they will not need sterile analysis.

I believe that the key to understanding CSR in the community is to recognise that when done properly, it is a partnership. Both parties - the organisation and the section of the community or group of individuals that the organisation is linking with - should have something to give and something to gain.

The fact that the organisation gains as well as gives, and considers carefully where and how to make its investments to maximise this gain, seems perfectly reasonable to me. Correspondingly, the people and communities who are the beneficiaries of CSR activity should never be left in any doubt that what they offer in return will at least match the value of anything they receive, albeit in a different currency. I could not begin to count the number of organisations I have worked in or with that sum it all up by saying: 'We gained so much more than we gave.'

So, I think a healthy recognition of mutual self-interest is part of a perfectly sound basis for an organisation to undertake CSR community work. Indeed, if a company does not plan all its CSR activities in a disciplined, auditable and business-based way, it will not be able to maximise their effectiveness, reap the full business benefits or get its own managers and staff to participate in the best way. Without this business-led approach, it might just as well make charitable donations and let staff support good causes on an ad hoc basis. That would be a shame though, because effective CSR produces inspiring results as well as commercially sound ones.

At the Inland Revenue over recent years, I have worked with staff in frontline support jobs who have blossomed when taking part in Business in the Community or Prince's Trust enterprises. They have worked alongside teachers to help children improve their reading skills, or helped young people with unimaginable domestic and personal difficulties organise themselves to achieve something for the first time in their lives, or given guidance to groups transforming their own locality.

Similarly, I have seen senior colleagues share their experience in project management or financial administration with their equivalents in schools or prisons. They have been amazed by how much they learnt by using their skills in other sectors, and how much can be gained from seeing the difficulties people in those positions have to face and then overcome.

I have given up apologising for how personally inspiring and moving I find it when I see how groups or individuals can transform themselves and their environment with a bit of support or direct assistance. Similarly heartening has been hearing my own colleagues say that the experience of providing this support or expertise has been one of the most powerful personal developmental experiences they have ever had. The final bonus has been noting the tangible benefits to the organisation.

In the Inland Revenue's case, this includes seeing people make a success of self-employment or running a small business; getting and keeping a job after a period of homelessness; achieving educational qualifications they had thought were beyond them; and advising a group of people on how to claim their entitlements. I could go on.

If both partners in any CSR activity can achieve such an effect and the organisation's business objectives benefit, then I would suggest CSR might be one of those gloriously simple things in life where it is best to get on and try it, rather than spending an inordinate amount of time worrying about exactly what it is.

To get the full benefit, though, an organisation should tailor its CSR activities to match its business objectives and carefully analyse where its expertise and resources can have the most impact. Its customer or stakeholder base, its brand and the development of its workforce are all relevant factors too. Here, I have talked mainly about CSR work with the community, but the marketplace, the workplace and the environment need to be considered too. A strategy should be devised, tactics agreed and results measured. Benchmarking against peers is an excellent way of doing all this; as is networking to learn best practice quickly and cheaply.

Unsurprisingly, I would advocate getting top-quality support with all this planning. Hundreds of organisations find membership of Business in the Community a very helpful source; and my own experience makes me agree.

For an organisation to try to devise its CSR activities from scratch and in isolation seems perverse to me. But better that than not do anything and let the chance of some wonderful win/wins slip by.

- CV Ann Chant CB is a director general at Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. She has 40 years' management experience in the public sector, as a managing director of Business in the Community for two years and as a non-executive of The Industrial Society for five. She is currently a lay governor of London South Bank University. The ex-director general for service delivery in the Inland Revenue, she is now on the board of HMRC.

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