Corporate Social Responsibility (or is it?)

Corporate Social Responsibility (or is it?)

This post was originally written for The Business Herald (newspaper in Zimbabwe). We loved it so much, we asked Zach Aldwin if we could post it here for you. We hope this article stimulates a few thoughts and questions on how to go about doing good in the world.

  • "For every dollar you spend, 10 cents will go to poor starving children somewhere in the world."
  • "Shoes, let's give shoes to the poor children in Africa so they can walk to school."
  • "Our product comes from sustainably harvested forests where we pour back into local communities every time you buy a bag of our over priced offering."

Corporate Social Responsibility has invoked some of the biggest load of marketing hogwash ever dreamed up by Wall Street spin doctors. It is another layer of gloss in the facade dreamed up to help you not think that your brand new jersey might just have paid the annual wage for some poor barefoot machinist in a Bangladesh sweatshop.

Hey wait a minute, we live in Africa, surely we are immune to the fabrications and machinations of Big Brother capitalist empires. Nah, not really. If anything we are to be pitied all the more for allowing ourselves to be made into the unwilling victim in grandiose schemes, created to placate to consciences of the stupid consumer elsewhere.

Now that I have stepped on a few toes, I can see people perking up and going, "Wait a minute don't these community schemes work? Are not the recipients of all this aid, welfare, and exchange better off than they were before we got involved in their lives?"

Perhaps. But why do you have the need to broadcast your philanthropy to the world? Could you not just do the work, engage in the schemes anyway, and if the occasional discerning patron inquires then you can point out that "hey we really are doing some good work in the world."

My problem with corporate social programs is that I wonder if, more often than not, they are motivated by what they can get out of the deal rather than what they can give. That this is not charitable work at all, but simply another transaction to be benefited from and marketed to the level of stupidity. Why should we invite the local politician to the opening of a new borehole in a rural community? Is it in the hope of currying favor with his party by giving him a soapbox to stand on? Whatever happened to the idea of seeing a need and filling it, without any extra reward, thanks, or gratification, apart from the knowing in your soul that you changed lives today?

I question whether sometimes the We Give Back slogans are just a way of tapping into the emotions of a client who gets a little buzz every time he buys the product. That you are selling a convenient form of giving that makes a customer feel better because he no longer has to think about making a real difference in his community because "I gave to Africa today." And that little buzz is capitalized on to make him keep buying the product.

I question if we've got it all wrong.

That the wrongness stems from the very start of our companies, from the very core of our being. We all have dreams. That is Lesson One from any book on self actualization that "You have a big Dream that you can achieve." Then we spend the next twenty five chapters learning how to make our dream become a reality, a reality that benefits us. That our visions for our company and for our lives ignore the real needs of those around us. Because we are so focused on ourselves when a need comes along we immediately view it through the tinted glasses of how we can benefit from our own act of charity. The focus of our giving becomes about us and what we can get, not about the recipient, forgetting that in business (be it agricultural, investment, or in general) part of the profits should be reinvested to perpetuate the cycle.

This is what we teach our entrepreneurs. It's what we incorporate into our startups. Giving back is not something we do, it's apart of why we exist in the first place.

Vision is not a bad thing. Dreams are not a bad thing. But they should be tools rather than the real end goal. What point is there in building a great company but failing to build a great nation in the process? At the end of your career how different will the housing that your workers live in be compared to now? What would it take to improve the lives of those that work for you, and in a manner that does not result in them being indebted to you, but in a way that equips them to get up the rung one extra step? Housing is one example, but there is electricity, sanitation, education, health care. Then there is the non-humanitarian aspect of the planet we live in: our wildlife, flora, and aquatic systems.

Our giving back needs to be part of who we are and what we do. It does not need to be publicized or advertised. It should be done in a manner that allows maximum benefit (think above 90 percent of the proceeds) to reach the intended target, not wasted on advertising, fancy stage hire, or salaries of executives managing the process. It should be well-targeted—take care of your own community.

Where is the benefit of building a rural education centre if your own staff cannot afford to send their own children to school?

There will always be need. While no one person can solve every problem or give to every need, there is something each of us can do. With pure motives and embracing the inconvenience of the actions, we can all find a way to quietly and genuinely help with no obvious reward.

Make things better. Not for the pomp and circumstance, but because it is the right thing to do.

(photo via irin)