Function vs. Issue vs. Geography

You know the advertising slogan, “There’s no one way to eat a Reese’s”?  Well, something of the sort could be said when it comes to organizing a corporate social responsibility (CSR) program.  As with many challenges associated with CSR, there isn’t necessarily just one right way or wrong way to do it – it depends on what a company feels comfortable doing.

Several companies that we work with organize along functional lines.  One person handles volunteerism.  Another handles philanthropy and grant requests.  A third handles environmental issues.  A fourth handles compliance and governance.  The strengths of this approach are obvious.  The responsibilities are clear, the interactions are forthright, the deliverables are concrete.  The challenge is that these functional areas represent strategies, and they may not coherently dovetail toward common goals.  Companies sometimes worry that the sum of the parts might be less than the whole.

Another common way that companies organize their CSR functions is by issue. 

A number of companies tell us that they can’t be all things to all people, so they narrow their CSR programs to focus on either their company’s core competencies or their company’s long-term needs.  In this regard, the top issues that companies organize around include (1) education and workforce development, (2) environment and sustainability, (3) health and safety. 

This organizational model helps with focus and with strategy.  It helps to create litmus tests for action.  Does project X fit within our issue area?  If no, don’t do it.  If yes, then how does it fit?  Outcomes-oriented companies have increasingly migrated toward this kind of approach for addressing CSR.

Up until 2006, BCLC pursued a combination of these two approaches.  In our early years, we focused more on functionality.   We helped the Bush Administration launch Business Strengthening America, an initiative to promote corporate volunteerism.  We held an ongoing series of working group conversations around how to measure social value.  We studied how the CARE Act or the Patriot Act might affect corporate philanthropy.

At the same time, the State of Corporate Citizenship Survey, which we launched with Boston College in 2003, had a profound impact on us.   We discovered that education was the number one social issue that companies felt that they could do something about.   We learned that health care was the issue they felt would have the biggest impact on their business, but the one they felt least empowered to address.   We learned that environment was primarily an internal, operational focus, but that it was becoming an increasingly public concern as well. 

So we embarked on an issue-oriented approach and launched the Business Education Network in 2004.  We didn’t anticipate it would get so big, so quickly, and we’re proud that the dramatic response contributed to the U.S. Chamber making education reform a top-five competitive priority.

However, after BEN and the Chamber’s Center for Workforce Preparation merged to form the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, and also because of our experience with the geographical issues arising from the disaster response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the Southeast Asia tsunami, we went through a strategic re-think.

On one hand we decided to move in the direction of working with companies on “place-based” or geographic community and economic development, and on the other hand we went back to our functional roots.  We divided BCLC into four programs: three developmental programs – global development, U.S. community development, and disaster recovery (re-development) – as well as the business & society relations program.

This strategic shift brought us into alignment with the chamber federation and with the federal government.  As mentioned frequently, there are over 3,000 state and local chambers of commerce in the United States, and over 100 American Chambers overseas.  All they do is care about the community and economic development of their cities, regions, states, countries.  They are powerful aggregators of small business and immensely helpful in building public-private partnerships.  Internationally, around a third of the AmChams have some kind of CSR/corporate citizenship committee, and in the U.S., while we haven’t yet surveyed all of them, at least half a dozen local chambers are world-class in their approach to sustainability and corporate citizenship issues.

The federal government is also organized geographically and functionally, so our international program maps neatly to AID and MCC.  Our domestic program maps neatly to HUD, EDA, and parts of DOT and EPA, and our disaster program maps to FEMA, SBA, and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.

But now we come full circle.  On December 1, we are going to hold our first Business & Society (B&S) forum in conjunction with the annual Corporate Citizenship Awards.  Katie Loovis, the director of our B&S program, has spent the last six months helping us work on the Together for Recovery outreach and awareness campaign, and will be taking the reins of starting up this working group.

Over the next year, we expect the working group to address such issues as ethics and trust-building, social innovation and entrepreneurship, stakeholder relationship management, volunteerism and philanthropy, corporate social responsibility, and social metrics and performance.   This working group will be the primary interface for engaging with the White House Office of Social Innovation, the Office of Community & Faith-Based Initiatives, and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Please consider this your invitation to attend and participate in the inaugural forum on December 1.  If you can’t make it, but would like to get involved, please contact Katie Loovis