The evolving roles of CSR and corporate philanthropy

The evolving roles of CSR and corporate philanthropy

Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of six blogs from EarthShare about corporate giving. Read last month's blog published on GreenBiz about turning employees into sustainable assets.

The age-old debate about what encompasses corporate social responsibility almost always begins with a question that makes community relations managers and foundation directors shift in their chairs with varying levels of indignation: Is philanthropy CSR?

One simple answer: No, of course not.

But that answer suffers from a limited understanding of CSR. It doesn’t take into account the potential of business to help address challenges faced by our planet and society. The answer then might be: Corporate social responsibility is not just philanthropy.

It follows, then, that out of the thousands of professionals who work in community relations and development, some might be unsure whether they are philanthropy and community development professionals, or CSR professionals. And instead of dismissing this as a mere case of semantics, perhaps we should consider whether semantics actually changed how community involvement is perceived and implemented.

Community relations professionals & CSR: Conflicting?

"The role of CSR professionals and especially community relations and grantmakers has become increasingly specialized and more valuable as CSR has become a disciplined business practice in corporations," said Michael Carren, VP and Global Director of Employee Engagement and Volunteerism with JPMorgan Chase.

Carren, who also works with the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, said the evolution of these roles has been anything but gradual.

"Executives are now in a position to not only help CSR efforts generally, but are expected to contribute creatively, thoughtfully and with the expertise they possess to add value to businesses efforts,” Carren said. “The purpose is to not only create a positive reputation for the companies they work for, but moreover to build vibrant products, practices and relationships that truly create a triple bottom line impact.”

The value of a community involvement professional has been beyond reproach for decades. However, because those in such jobs typically work with a smaller team of individuals, if not by themselves (which is especially true for corporate foundation executives), there are murmurs of not having a seat on the strategic table. Others feel that the community involvement professional might not be contributing to the business.

Lina Klebanov, Deputy Director for CSR with Marsh & McLennan Companies, is quick to set the record straight. "Every company has its own DNA with respect to their corporate citizenship,” she says. “As CSR becomes more integrated into corporate cultures the role of community relations' experts will evolve from making the business case for CSR internally to focusing more on creating impact externally, which we all want to do."

For my team at EarthShare, community involvement extends beyond volunteering in the community park or planting trees. We believe that sustainability is a holistic approach that includes philanthropic efforts as well as employee-driven initiatives. A corporate culture that understands the importance of collective impact is also an ideal part of sustainability.

Restricting philanthropy to foundations and corporate social responsibility to the CSR director limits the understanding of the impact of both fields. For many corporations, this limited definition has meant walking a fine balance in shifting from an age-old dictum of doing good through charities to inculcating responsibility as a culture.

Photo of CSR blackboard drawing provided by Chatchawan via Shutterstock

Are corporate foundations still relevant?

All of this also brings into question the relevancy of foundations today. With CSR increasingly becoming embedded in corporate cultures that emphasize skills-based volunteerism and impact strategies that align with business' primary products and services, are standalone foundations still as important?

The latest report published by the Foundation Center gives some insight regarding the answers to these questions. According to the report, contributions from U.S. foundations have been decreasing in recent years. As a group, they gave an estimated $46.9 billion in 2011, surpassing the $46.8 billion pre-recession peak recorded in 2008. But after accounting for inflation, contributions by the nation's more than 76,600 foundations were down slightly from 2010, the report noted.

Is a shift toward holistic and integrated CSR changing the way companies are choosing to use their philanthropic dollars? Not necessarily, suggests the report. According to 2011 numbers, corporate foundation giving increased by 6 percent to $5.2 billion before inflation – more than any other type of foundations.

Further, corporate foundations were also the ones most likely to predict increased giving in 2012.

Impact: The good news

This is good news for the community involvement and development officers who spend careers building their business' reputation in the community through monetary and non-monetary efforts – and educating employees about the power of collective impact.

As for those who continue to override these statistics to say that philanthropy should not be a standalone function and instead be submerged into an overarching culture of social and environmental responsibility, the Foundation Center report indicates progress.

Combining deeper pockets and intent may be the only antidote for businesses to take care of their social and environmental footprint – and ensure they are sustainable.

Without professionals who understand the fabric of the company's immediate environment, respect the power of partnerships and can influence change through their unique perspective of business responsibilities, CSR efforts could fall flat and become yet another public relations stint.

Because EarthShare is the fence connecting corporations with well-deserving nonprofits and charities, the organization has seen such efforts fail in the past. But there’s also been success through collaborations that have begun with monetary donations and finished as integrated employee engagement and leadership programs.

The point is that it's not about semantics. As Carren and Klebanov allude, it’s about connecting the dots between community and business for long-term sustainability of the business and the environment.