Perhaps the Definition of CSR is Semantics

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An interesting anecdote was described in a recent blog post entitled “Why Don’t Executives Understand CSR?” The author discusses an event that she attended which dealt with the advancement of women in the workplace. She had a discussion on the side with an executive that basically boiled down to this. The author saying she was at the event because this is an important “CSR issue” and the executive stating incredulously that this is not a “CSR issue” but something of great importance, one that is very strategic (whatever that means). The author was frustrated as anyone who spends their life trying to get CSR on the agenda would be.

First I want to say that Vault has done excellent work profiling the CSR space of late. I think is of great importance because it’s become a well-known brand that people go to in order to find information on various corporations. Secondly, I believe the broader issue that is pertinent due to this short, one-off exchange is really something worth exploring.

What exactly was going on here? Well, someone who firmly believes in the principles of CSR and regularly works in this space came to an event regarding female advancement in the workplace, which I think would fall under anyone’s definition of CSR. On the other hand you have an executive that is clearly interested (dare I say passionate) about the same issue, but as evidence of the exchange, clearly believes that CSR is not a legitimate business strategy.

What I think is interesting is that I can see both sides of the issue and in a sense it seems as though they are arguing about the definition of something that, in principle, they both agree upon. Much has been made about what the definition of CSR is and how it’s implemented, but I wonder if arguing about that is really the best use of our time. We want CSR to be taken seriously and to be implemented properly so I can understand the author’s annoyance by the conversation, but clearly the executive found the issue equally important even if said executive displayed how important an issue they thought it was by disparaging something (CSR) that they did not find so strategically important.

So my question is, how important is it to define something when, ostensibly we’re working towards the same goal? Is this just semantics and does semantics like this get in the way of pursuing a common goal, which in this case happened to be the advancement of women in the workplace. Or perhaps I just started another argument that is taking away from this pursuit of common goals.

Image Credit by Gerard Fritz via Flickr under a CC license

4 thoughts on “Perhaps the Definition of CSR is Semantics”

  1. Great post! I completely agree. CSR has become too ambiguous in definition and causes confusion. Confusion instigates backlash. If we use CSR as an “umbrella” term and get more specific in defining it’s use in many fields, I think we would see unanimous agreement and compliance. I wrote a similar article on my blog ( let me know what you think.

  2. Thanks so much for the mention Jonathan. I appreciate that my experience compelled you to strike up a conversation! This is a topic that continues to beg for clarity and mainstream understanding. But context is equally important, and that’s where unfortunately most people halt.

    Once again, I appreciate your comments for my blog as well as Vault and commend you on continuing the conversation.

  3. @Aman: Thanks so much for commenting here. I really thought it was a valuable if quick exchange that highlights an issue that is somewhat of a “latent” concern as you obviously pointed out. I will be sure to keep up on your writings.

    @Gabe: Excellent article as well. I have written numerous times about how CSR can’t really be a number of fringe policies pasted together to be effective, but needs to be a part of core business practices. If you get a chance, have a look at the article below I wrote on philanthropy (which you touched on as well)…I consider it important, but not something that really has an impact on the way one does business.

    I think that, in a sense, it may be time for a rebranding (as much as I hate to use that term) as far as CSR goes. For one thing, the “R” gets a lot of people and it doesn’t surprise me that business don’t want to be told by outside parties what their “responsibilities” are. I think this is been a troublesome part of NGO/advocacy groups’ relationships with businesses for one thing.

  4. Words matter…so defining CSR accurately and convincingly matters. While both sides of the argument presented in your article (and I read “Aman’s article a few weeks ago as well) reveal a parallel track toward a shared outcome, it is important that our definition of CSR be made concisely and without amibuity. Otherwise, people like the woman who doesn’t see women leadership in the workplace as a CSR strategy will continue to not see CSR as a relevant business strategy.

    The more and more I read about this debate – how do we define CSR – the more and more I believe we are missing something in the words to legitimize the practice.

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