One can be forgiven for being confused about corporate social responsibility. In the January 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review, some really smart people are questioning whether the Porter/Kramer model of identifying social aspects of your value chain is the right way to go. In what feels like a pandering-to-the-CEO kind of article, the authors say that there’s a continuum of social impacts, so whatever CSR you do is fine as long as it’s coordinated. And also, please pay our consulting company some money to coordinate it for you.

Even business pundits like author Adrian Wooldridge dismiss CSR as just the latest business fad. In his 2011 book Masters of Management, he calls CSR a “feel-good mishmash rather than a coherent position,” destined for the museum of obsolete consulting jargon.

Or could it just be that poor implementation of a good idea produces lame results?

Is strategic CSR actually impossible?

A few days ago I was discussing CSR over coffee with someone really smart, and I was using my favorite example of good implementation. Many of the resorts here in Las Vegas have an employee dining room, where employees can eat for free. This solves two problems for the resorts.  First, it would be impossible for hourly employees to change out of their uniforms, leave the property, get something inexpensive to eat, eat it, return to the property and change back into their uniforms on their 30 minute meal break. Second, have you seen the buffets? That’s potentially a lot of food waste!

By using the employee dining room to absorb perfectly good food, and feeding it to employees who would otherwise be haunting the vending machines or working on an empty stomach, the resorts have hit upon an activity that solves both business and social problems.

And this activity is on the cover of their annual CSR reports, right? Nope. But why not?

My coffee companion hit the nail on the head: If CSR has obvious business benefits, then it can’t be considered CSR. In order for it to be perceived as real CSR, it has to be altruistic, e.g.,  it needs to cost something, or provide a drag on earnings, or external observers need to see that the company is sacrificing for the social good, or receives no tangible benefit.1

This partially explains why high-performing companies take the non-strategic option of shotgun philanthropy. Spending time implementing strategic CSR then becomes self-defeating.

Taking out the “R”

Perhaps the solution is to disconnect altruism from CSR completely. Altruism as a concept has its own problems anyway. To summarize (and oversimplify): no activity can be truly selfless because people receive psychological and/or spiritual rewards in exchange for even purely altruistic acts.

So if altruism is off the table for CSR, then it’s not really a responsibility in the sense that mowing the lawn or paying taxes is a responsibility. It then becomes an opportunity to once again identify the aspects of your value chain that have social impacts, and to find ways to augment or reduce those social impacts. In other words, true Porter/Kramer strategic CSR.

1 To be fair, she actually only started to say this and then frowned as she became aware of the implications. Like I said: really smart.

Image: By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons