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Strategic CSR Basics for Naysayers

BP green and yellow sunflower pattern logo introduced in 2000 as part of its Beyond Petroleum launch.

The CSR community has been abuzz this week reacting to a recent article in the Washington Post regarding BP’s Corporate Social Responsibility, or lack thereof. In it author Chrystia Freeland purports “many of the business disasters of the past 24 months have been facilitated by the mini-industry of corporate social responsibility,” calling CSR a “fetish encouraged by the philanthropies that feed off it and funded by the corporate executives who have found that it serves their bottom line.” Does Freeland have a point?

Most CSR professionals would disagree with Freeland’s portrayal of CSR as an industry, but she does make a point even if the rest of the article is difficult to palate from a CSR advocacy standpoint. That point is that, “the gulf oil spill and the financial crisis have taught us, rather brutally, that the heart of the relationship between business and society doesn’t lie with the charitable deeds that companies do in their off-hours but whether they are doing their day jobs in ways that help — or hurt — the rest of us.”

That’s exactly it! CSR strategists are not looking for mere philanthropy or charitable deeds or any other tertiary activity that carries a green label and takes away from the core competencies of a firm. At the heart of strategic CSR businesses examine their relationship with society and make responsible decisions based on their core functions. Michael Porter and Mark Kramer outlined this strategic CSR in 2006. They model CSR as a business activity that should be linked to core business objectives that are leveraged for increased economic and social values. For BP this means NOT destroying the Gulf Coast with oil they intended to harvest and sell. And for any naysayers of CSR out there in the business community, this is not a strategy coming from the halls of philanthropies, this is Michael Porter, father of the modern business strategy field.

While Freeland is correct in the faulty relationship between BP’s business and society. I believe she is wrong in the role CSR played. CSR did not fail BP. BP’s adoption of aesthetic CSR policies failed to produce the intended results of strategic CSR, that of aligning business objectives with economic and social values. It’s time to get back to basics and use strategic CSR for the greater good.

Image Credit: The Walt via Flickr under Creative Commons license

Written by Emily DeMasi

Emily McKinin DeMasi is a 2011 MBA/ MA Public Policy candidate and Peace Corps Fellow at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. Her thesis work concerns Corporate Social Responsibility in the United States. She also works as a Research Fellow at Bridgeway Capital, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) in downtown Pittsburgh. Emily has worked as an Associate in a Private Equity Placement Firm in NY and as a Water and Sanitation Volunteer in Ivory Coast, West Africa. She hopes to combine her business background with her passion for development and inspire others in the fields of Sustainability and CSR.

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  1. I agree. AS far as I know on the subject, most traditional corporations do their business as usual with tunnel vision on the bottom line regardless of what harm they may do, THEN throw charity balls, donate money (usually tax deductible) and look like good guys. Like a driver speeding along changing lanes willy nilly with no signal, run a few people over, but hey I gave a few dollars to M.A.D.D. last quarter. This is not CSR, but rather trying to do a little good to right the lot of bad you have done.
    CSR, is I understand it, is a business model where, sure you wanna to make money, but you are dong so with a mind on the world around you. You use that turn signal and take a good long look before turning and you still give to M.A.D.D. (though the other guy should give more).

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