The Difference between Average and Great CSR Programs

November 29, 2011

The annual Corporate Citizenship Awards always generate great stories, and the 2011 Awards were no exception. To recap, here are the winners:

Best U.S. Business Neighbor — UnitedHealth Group received the Best Business Neighbor award for deploying vast resources and technological expertise to combat America’s diabetes epidemic. Diabetes and prediabetes affect 105 million people across the country.

Best International Ambassador — Pfizer Inc. and the Pfizer Foundation received this award for their work throughout the world to fight neglected non-communicable diseases and their associated risks, such as tobacco use. Over the past four years, the company has invested in cancer and tobacco-control partner organizations in 46 countries.

Best Corporate Stewardship — Kraft Foods won this category for its overall culture and operational practices, and for creating shared value benefitting both the company and society. Kraft Foods’ global priorities are sustainability and health, including the underlying issues of obesity and malnutrition.

Best Partnership — After a judging process that involved nearly 45,000 public votes, Grainger and its nonprofit partner, American Red Cross, emerged as the winners of this people’s choice category for their decade-long collaboration to create disaster-ready communities through employee volunteerism across the United States. 

So what separates a great CSR program from an average one? What made these Award winners stand out? 

Several characteristics come to mind:

Commitment. When companies like UnitedHealth Group and Pfizer decide to go after a problem, they go after it systematically. They don’t just leverage their philanthropy. They mobilize their employees, their communications capabilities, their products and services, and their influence on their supply chains and their customers.

Scale. Companies don’t have to be gigantic to have a large footprint in this era of virtual conferences and social media. They just have to think big. While Grainger has undergone a massive expansion over the past few years to become a Fortune 500 company, it began its national collaboration with the American Red Cross a decade ago. Problems increasingly transcend local geographies, and companies are learning how to take programs that work in one community to scale in others.

Sustainability. Kraft Foods had its beginnings in 1903 when J.L. Kraft started a wholesale door-to-door cheese delivery business on the streets of Chicago. Over the years, the company grew through mergers and acquisitions to the point where it now owns 12 billion-dollar brands including Cadbury, Maxwell House, Nabisco, and Oscar Mayer. You don’t build this kind of a business without figuring out what people want and how to please them. Kraft doesn’t just want to “make today delicious,” it wants to sustain its customers and its environment so it can make tomorrow delicious for them, too.

Authenticity. Many companies address social issues, but they are greeted with skepticism or cynicism if they don’t mesh with a company’s core identity. The best CSR programs reflect and reinforce the core value proposition of the company. Health companies tackling health issues? Makes perfect sense. An insurance company like Allstate (another 2011 finalist) promoting safe teen driving? Makes perfect sense. 

Relationship-Building. This characteristic builds off the last point. The best CSR programs help companies make emotional, values-driven connections with their customers, employees, community neighbors, and other stakeholders. 

We live in an age when almost anything can be turned into a commodity. There are generic drugs, private label foods, contract manufacturers, no-label fashions. But we also live in an age where many people don’t just want transactions, they want meaningful connections. They want values as well as value. The best CSR programs are tapping into this movement, and helping their businesses be seen as something special.