Strengthening the CSR Ecosystem: Some Imperatives

Academic institutions, academicians and prolific writers play a greater role in formalizing some of the learning. They help in accrediting the work done under CSR.

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India CSR Cartoon Award 2nd Prize Winning Cartoon by Raghupati, Banglore. Copy Right: Cartoon Watch & India CSR Network.

By Nirbhay K

Presently, the landscape and dynamics of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in the country is changing and evolving very rapidly. CSR grants have become virtual seed funding opportunities for addressing social issues and civil society organizations are conceptualizing scalable development projects.

The simplest definition of an ecosystem is a network of complex or interconnected system. In the spectrum of Corporate Social Responsibility in India,   there are largely three key players – privately owned companies   the Government machinery and the Government Support Organizations (popularly known as Non-Government Organizations, NGO).  The usage of Government Support Organizations (GSO) is deliberate in the context of understanding the larger CSR ecosystem.

It is indeed more appropriate to call out these organizations as Government Supported Organizations rather than Non-Government Organizations. Irrespective of planned privatization or globalization, the socialist aspect of the government would remain public welfare. It is equally important to accept that there is always a cost associated with the growth of any and there is a good percent of population which continues to be at the brink of poverty and malnutrition. This existing lopsided development paradigm has nothing to do about the kind of economy or polity, it just stays and it is the role of the state to ensure that these marginalized sections are ensured basic living standards. Civil Society or Government Support Organizations play a significant role in taking these benefits to the last person of the unreached horizons.

The role of the government as a welfare state has been completely misunderstood and undermined by the mainstream. The country would not have been at the current helm of affairs had the past statesmen and economists ignored the welfare of the large masses. Given the priorities and mammoth scale of operations, the fruits of welfare economy have not percolated to the needy and the most deserved. However, policies are evolving over the years and enactment of CSR Act could be read in the right perspective, driving towards this.

A correct and clear understanding of the CSR ecosystem is even more imperative and appropriate to engage more meaningfully in this aspect. In the context of the above, the current article sheds light on what constitutes a vibrant CSR ecosystem that fosters and fuels growth of innovation, best practices and collaboration in the area of CSR in India.

Innovation and adaption to change are critical, even more important with the onslaught of newer technologies, and it is equally applicable in the context of running successful CSR initiatives. CSR is an integral part of business and is no more on the fringe to be managed by the operations team. It is a strong blend of strategic planning, brand reputation and recognition. CSR helps mediate the relationship between business and the external community. It also connects and strengthens relationship between business and the government machinery Innovation in CSR is all about awarding unique projects and clear program management, which would provide an edge among peers and help enter new areas faster and deeper.

Companies have to invest in technology for tracking, support in research and adaptation of projects for scaling up available opportunities.  It is critical for CSR to move away from charities and philanthropy towards project based funding based on result framework. Result framework provides guidance in conceiving and designing projects that are strategically critical, long-term and help in building institutional mechanisms for further strengthening policy decisions. Result Framework or any other equivalent methodology would certainly help building quality projects.

It is important to note that the entire project funding under CSR revolves around the tripod of transparency, integrity and reporting. It is applicable for both the players- the funder and the recipient. These play a critical role in ensuring openness among stakeholders in project implementation, tracking and course correction. Some of the best practices of corporate processes could be transferred through these mediums for mutual trust. These certainly help elevate community based implementation organizations to a different level.

Communication also helps in disseminating the success stories for other companies and implementing partners to imbibe such practices. Given the advancement in communication, it is critical to capture processes, anecdotes and success stories through audio-visual mediums. These are some of the best of ways of sharing the commitment through appropriate creative and branding opportunities for building Public Relations.

It is important that platforms and forums are created to showcase CSR success stories and journeys. Some would argue that it is too early to have such avenues to disseminate success stories. The author argues that building such matured platforms is a time consuming process and hence starting early makes a great deal. It is important to make a note that CSR as an act is new but there are large conglomerates and multinationals continuing with their past of doing good and would continue to add to the common good.

CSR forums act as platforms to acknowledge, recognize and reward the good work and provide required impetus and encouragement. These platforms build opportunities to connectnetwork and collaborate for mutual success. Appreciation in any form is good as long it is evaluated appropriately and formally at the institutional levels. It adds a status of celebration to the good work. These platforms coupled with positive media coverage would help support CSR achieve the mega milestones in bringing about change in lives of the downtrodden. It is important that the mainstream media picks up stories and brings out series of publications for people to know, read and understand efforts towards improving social development indicators.

Globally, innovation in improving public sector and enhancing social services is gaining momentum. In the context of India, in the aspect of CSR, these think tanks could be in the form of building development institutions, foundations, or research centers curated by either private or public funding. The objective of constituting such think tanks could be manifold, fostering social innovation or providing local solutions or funding research or a mix of above three.

These think tanks can strategize and guide companies in managing internal, external, current and future stakeholders. It is important that the key stakeholder, employee, is also given equal weight age. It is a matter of fact that the stakeholder relationship, especially the socio-political environment, could be well managed by strategic CSR. It is no rocket Science to prove that the best CSR practices contribute to sustainable relationships, positive productive ambiance, better profits, less risk with stakeholders. It is one of the best ways of mitigating enterprise risk and helps improve current and future valuations.

Academic institutionsacademicians and prolific writers play a greater role in formalizing some of the learning. They help in accrediting the work done under CSR. It is high time that institutions constitute ‘chair’ or ‘sponsor’ research in the area of CSR and sustainability. The need of the hour is establish as many think tanks, led by individuals or institutions both at regional and national levels. It is imperative to create, nurture and strengthen assessment divisions within these think tanks to evaluate the work done under CSR.

The next most important aspect in making CSR vibrant, is infusing healthy competition and collaboration in addressing development issues. It is critical to note that solving social issues is indeed a complex process and it needs tremendous trust and collaboration among stakeholders. Therefore, companies have an opportunity to make grant and grant making to the implementing partners a steep height to climb rather than cheque writing philanthropy. It encourages government support organizations to innovate, calls for collaboration and build multi-stakeholder projects. It may also lead to corporate-to-corporate funded projects that could address much larger issues while leveraging each other strengths. Some of these initiatives would certainly help in creating partnerships of par excellence for addressing and solving larger national interest issues and pave way for ease of doing business.

It is of paramount importance to note the role of the senior executives in CSR. The governance structure enables participation, stakeholder management and oversees project implementation. It is critical that the governance structure is serious about its CSR efforts as it reflects the company’s commitment. In simplest terms, it is commitment in action. Therefore, utmost priority has to be given to build processes to establish good governance practices that enable and strengthen projects for larger good. It is also important that the governance is clear on choice of implementation, direct or co-implementers, or outsource the commitment through policy directives. It certainly helps in reporting to enhance the company reputation for having a clearer approach.

It is time that every corporate believes that CSR as a case in point helps in becoming competitive in the fast changing business environment. Every company has its goals and issues to balance and it is even important to continue the balance in the context of a more alert customer and attentive community in which business receives license to operate. Therefore, it is critical to get on-board all relevant stakeholders that include constituent bodies, think tanks, public and private enterprises, academic institutions, platforms, media, government support organizations, and individuals to create the focus around strengthening the CSR ecosystem.  The need is to get the entire ecosystem together and focus on making CSR more vibrant and acceptable. A more robust CSR space gives level playing field for everyone and every size of enterprise.

(Nirbhay K is a CSR professional and an IIT alumnus. Author can be reached @NirbhayK2.)

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely of the author in personal capacity and do not in any way represent views of any institution, entity or organization that the author may have been associated with.

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