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Sunday, April 17, 2011

CSR Re-inspired

Highlights from the ORENDA Connections conference and 
why I believe in CSR again

If you have followed my posts throughout the past few months, you've likely caught on to the fact that I've become a tad cynical about corporate social responsibility (CSR).  Having gone through business school thinking optimistically that CSR is creating positive impact around the world, since graduating a year ago, my experiences and research have tainted this perspective.

This past year, I have delved deep into the web of social innovation.  I have spent countless hours at events that focus on social entrepreneurship and social finance.  I have read blogposts, books, and articles about grassroots organizations  and social entrepreneurs who are creating real system-changing impact on the world's most pressing social issues.  I have lived and breathed all that is Ashoka.  And I've seen reality snippets of the corporate world; its hypocrisy and wasted resources.

I guess this explains why in just one year, I went from the CSR end of the spectrum to the grassroots extreme.

But this past week I attended ORENDA Connections' CSR conference, In Good Company, and to my surprising relief, I was totally re-inspired by the power of CSR.

I have been following ORENDA's founder and CEO Peggie Pelosi since my studies at Ivey.  She is a true inspiration to me.  Peggie epitomizes the powerful woman determined to create positive change.  After a twenty-year career in sales, a life-changing experience in Uganda led Peggie on journey which culminated in the founding of ORENDA: A strategic CSR consulting company dedicated to helping companies leverage the power of CSR to create a meaningful connection between people and the places they work. (Read more about Peggie's interesting story here)

In Good Company drew speakers from major corporations across various sectors as well as smaller, emerging companies.  We heard from Microsoft, Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities, Telus, Edelman Public Relations, L'oreal and Loyalty One to name a few.  And while I wasn't fully aligned with a few presentations, I took home some interesting learnings and was inspired by two companies in particular: Fifth Town Artisan Cheese, and Better the World.

Here are some fast facts that resonated with me:

- Catherine Hughes of Corel Corporation shared that they chose to partner with global charity Room to Read because the charity was adament that they would choose how and when Corel would interact with Room To Read's staff and children.  This criterion has led to an incredibly successful partnership. 

- Petra Cooper, founder of Fifth Town Artisan Cheese, has spent only $50,000 on marketing in all the years her business has been running...cumulatively.  So how do people know about this organic dairy farm that sells mind-blowing cheeses? How is Petra so successful?  She allocated those traditional marketing dollars to her focus on community.  She donates cheese to non-profit events and supports various other community initiatives.  She also sells the experience through her widely-acclaimed dairy farm tours. She may be extracting value from her CSR practices, but as long as it is authentic and creates impact, it works for me!

- Steve Croth of Better the World asked the participants if they brought their CEO's, CFO's, and other big guys/gals to the conference that day.  Not one person put up their hand.  He said that we're not bringing the right people to events like In Good Company, because everyone who was there has already bought-in.  We know that the real decisions start at the top, so let's change the target market of CSR events.

So simple, yet so brilliant.  This one really stuck with me.

- During the panel discussion, the speakers were asked the percentage of pre-tax profits that are spent on their CSR strategies.  While individuals from various large corporations answered this question quite precisely (Apprently "best practices" dictate it is 1%), Steve Croth said exactly what was on my mind: That number does not, and should not matter.  If you are dedicated to doing good, then do what it takes to do good. 

- Mikael Henry, Senior Vice President of L'Oreal's Professional Products Division made us laugh uncontrollably with his delightful French accent and witty jokes.  What resonated with me most, however, is L'Oreal's "Hairdressers Against AIDS" initiative.  I was taken by the creativity and simplicity of partnering with hairdressers across Canada to spread the AIDS message.  They're the ones who spend hours of  personal time with people, they're the ones are vented to. Check out this awesome program:


So while I still see companies creating hypocritical CSR programs, In Good Company raised hopes that many companies are making lasting impact and are authentic in their socially responsible missions.   And while grassroots organizations and social entrepreneurs have the advantage of knowing their causes best, of little bureaucracy, and a sole focus on their missions, we must not forget the power of money....and it is the large corporations that have this advantage.  So if we can use this power and channel it effectively toward social missions, you may just find me back in the middle of that grassroots-CSR spectrum.

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