A playfield called CSR

This happened ten years ago when I was heading corporate communications for a company and CSR or Corporate Social Responsibility was slowly attempting to penetrate our plans. The CEO said, ‘We need to project the company as environment friendly.’ The suggestions that followed included giving away hundreds of saplings during events and on World Environment Day. One of the apprehensions that I was brave enough to voice was about sticking to this plan year after year and not to discard it as unviable after just one or two attempts. I said, ‘CSR or Corporate Social Responsibility isn’t just about a willingness to give. It is all about making sure that we do it year after year. It is all about choosing the right social media platforms to communicate adequate information about these efforts.’ I added later, ‘Don’t play with CSR.’

I informed the panel that the country was struggling with multiple challenges that included unemployment, ever increasing population and little access to life’s basic needs like water, technical literacy, sanitation, education, health services, gender inequality, cultural initiatives, promotion of art, and environment among many others. At that point of time CSR in India was a buzzword that had begun to find its way to medium and smaller sized companies. Even the laws then were not yet formed to give CSR a direction.

It was years later that things started moving at a clipping pace… and I must say that a lot of companies today take this responsibility seriously. It was in August 2013, that the Indian parliament passed the Indian Companies Act, 2013 (the “New Act”), which has replaced the Companies Act of 1956. The amendment of  April 1, 2014 is all about the imposition of compulsory corporate social responsibility obligations upon Indian companies and foreign companies operating in India. The law states that companies with a net worth of at least Rs. 5 billion or a turnover of at least Rs. 10 billion or net profits of at least Rs. 50 million need to be active in their CSR efforts. To make things clear, the law stipulates that ‘no less than two percent of its average net profit for its preceding three financial years’ must be spent on CSR activities. The law in force also states that all CSR funds must be spent in India.

Let me mention the case of Credit Sudhaar, India’s premier credit health management company. Their CSR team has been doing smaller bits earlier and Dainik Bhaskar did report an activity where the company ‘distributes sewing machines to farmers’ families in Wardha district of Maharashtra on 26 Jan 2016’. I am writing about their CSR initiative because they have now graduated to bigger CSR plans and this needs to be talked about. Their latest attempt is ‘aimed at improving the educational infrastructure in the country’s rural areas, a requirement that is central to the growth for any community’ and epicentre is Pimpri – located in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra. Their plan is to digitise rural schools. What is worth noting is that the population of this village does not exceed 500 individuals, and a significant chunk of the population – over 15 percent – comprises of children between the ages of 0 to 6 years. Literacy is already there in the village and the company identified the need for computers, printers, and projectors. This was done in presence of the village sarpanch, village head, the school management committee (comprising of school parents) teachers and student on 11 May 2016.

What is important in this case is the focus on identifying the real need as it has been noted by many that CSR tends to be a secondary activity where most companies search for areas where a simple funding will suffice. The way I think is that this company needs to adopt the entire village and initiate activities that lead to cleanliness, adequate water and electricity, the construction of more toilets, and means for conflict resolution at a village level. What matters is activities that have the potential to generate meaningful employment for the locals and an interaction with the social matrix in ways that social harmony and economic prosperity put an end to exodus to towns and cities that is happening all around. A worthy beginning has been made and with their initiative, the teachers will have the confident to make sweeping changes in the teaching methodologies that will help students learn better besides learning to manage computers at an earlier age. Yes, digital literacy is essential but not the end of all woes.

The truth is that more companies need to step out of easier CSR initiatives that are focused on the urban poor and try and make our villages self-sufficient and attractive enough for their inhabitants to stay on. Developed villages are what are going to give India the strength it needs to step out of its ‘developing nation’ profile.

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Additional note to what CSR means:

Everyone who holds a business card is inextricably a part of marketing and CSR cannot stay aloof. The sad truth is that CSR targets are considered to be a necessary evil to be adopted because the babus in the government may not like it to be otherwise. Not many, barring sales teams, trudge along with the responsibility of targets and some try to hide behind softer jargon like brand building. But sales targets and brand building work in tandem and evolve only when the entire organisation shares accountability. It is the definition and purpose of CSR, as is the case with many other departments, that needs to evolve from being detached from the battlefield called sales to becoming one of the platoons deployed in action. After all, everyone wears the same fatigues and everyone advances or retreats together.

CSR, however, cannot be dismissed as a mere farce. As I said, it needs to be deployed in action and also be eligible for the same bravery awards, so to say. This part of the organisational strategic plan is not about charity alone… in fact, there is no charity anywhere. CSR needs to be viewed as a philanthropic step that has the potential to raise the overall equity of a brand – which is what everyone wants. CSR is not a one-off activity that one does and steps away… the tempo is built over a period of time and the sustained effort is what pays dividends. In this age of increased internet penetration and the rise of the myriad social media platforms, the role of CSR is as vital as whatever the s&m guys happen to be doing.

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Article published in The Huffington Post, dated 29 May 2016:

2016_05_29_HuffPost_CSR

2016_05_29_HuffPost_CSR

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This article was published in Marketing Buzzar also:

2016_05_20_Marketing Buzzar_A playfield called CSR

2016_05_20_Marketing Buzzar_A playfield called CSR

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Arvind Passey
20 May 2016