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By on January 11, 2016 - CSR Blog
Is your organization implementing socioeconomic development, environmental or charity projects that benefit communities? Do you think this automatically makes these projects a demonstration of social responsibility? Well, don’t be so sure!

It is now common practice for modern businesses to take great care of their corporate image by investing into socioeconomic development and environmental preservation projects – which are as well communicated as possible – be it to boost their marketing or even to comfort clients. For projects with greater impact on human and natural territory, things are a little different: they do it to earn social acceptance and comply with regulatory requirements. Aren’t such investments only societal in appearance, as they ultimately just serve profitability and compliance objectives? Or, on the opposite, could these development projects mirror decision-makers’ will to take actions that go beyond corporate interest and actually fulfill needs of influencing communities? When are we addressing true Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)?

CSR definitions exist in great numbers, yet there’s none everybody agrees on so far. Definitions vary according to standpoint, whether moral, legal, social, managerial or sustainable development. Not pretending to succeed where scholars are still debating, let’s look at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government’s CSR definition (2007), one that ages better than others thanks to its magnitude:

“We define Corporate Social Responsibility strategically. Corporate Social Responsibility encompasses not only what companies do with their profits, but also how they make them. It goes beyond philanthropy and compliance and addresses how companies manage their economic, social, and environmental impacts, as well as their relationships in all key spheres of influence: the workplace, the marketplace, the supply chain, the community, and the public policy realm.”

This definition equips us to better understand what consists of a true CSR policy:

No corporation’s profit reinvestment that is beneficial to communities can overshadow how these profits came to be in the first place. An organization that maintains bad societal practices throughout the normal course of its activities is socially irresponsible, no matter what its philanthropic activities, sustainable development projects or socioeconomic development initiatives are.

This statement invites us to investigate social responsibility of organizations beyond investments into socioeconomic projects. In other words, we must look early into organizations’ interactions with all spheres of influence that generated profits: workplace, business community, supply chain, communities, public sector, etc. What comportments translate into an actual CSR policy? Without pretending to provide an extensive list of good practices, here are a few to look for, especially for corporations with an important socio-environmental footprint:

Good governance. CSR requires transparency and ethic in business processes. An organization that is jeopardized by non-ethical transactions with some stakeholders instantly kills its community investments’ credibility. Investing at the same time in construction (through social development programs) and destruction (corruption, for example) of a country or a community is unthinkable in a societal perspective.

Local employment. Look for a clear hiring process, widely circulated, understood and used by job seekers, and that favours local employment through internal staff management policies that outsmart stipulations of current work legislation.

Local procurement. An equitable societal process privileges local suppliers, eases their participation to the tender process and provides for development measures of businesses that wish to go towards better conformity to recognized quality standards.

Environmental authorizations. Good CSR requires organizations to call on viable experts to undertake impact assessment while they (organizations) elaborate management and mitigation plans of these impacts by settling beforehand a convention on impacts and benefits with impacted communities.

Public consultations. Look for businesses that multiply, extend and structure meeting times in order to actively encourage implication of stakeholders. This generates as many opportunities as possible to raise concerns and issues, to end conflict before it begins and to set the tone for projected development.

Collateral effects. In the case of an emergency affecting human or natural environments, a responsible organization commits to immediate declaration, to the implementation of emergency measures to protect present life forms, to provide clear explanations on reasons of the incident and corrective measures, and most importantly on how this type of incident will be avoided in the future.

Respect of cultural heritage. Identify infrastructure projects that modified their original plans to take into account sensible sites of cultural, touristic or scientific interest located within the sought territory, and that applied specific processes to preserve and even enhance these sites.

Continuous dialog. Good CSR calls for regular exchanges with communities, during which stakeholders can actively take part in some of the decision-making of the organization.

Grievances and complaints mechanisms. Beyond green numbers and suggestion boxes, look for a clear and predictable process, that’s been validated early by involved communities. Fair and quick handling of concerned individuals by respectful staff who are aware that each interaction is an opportunity to enhance for the organization.

Pertinent community investments that are concretized are only the icing on the cake of an organization’s (corporate citizen) attitude and processes, rather than a mask that hides its shortcomings.

About Eric Gagnon
In his 20 years working as a manager and advisor in project management, HR and CSR, Eric has been supporting many organizations in Canada and French Africa in challenging industries like humanitarian aid and extractive. Now based in Madagascar, he commercializes Boréalis' software and services to engaged investors to facilitate the development of their sustainable projects in Africa and Indian Ocean.

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