Nov 01, 2011 • By

A higher bar for CSR

I recently attended the Business Civic Leadership Center’s (BCLC) Global Citizen Conference, which by all accounts was an excellent – and all too rare – convening about social change.

But beyond the impressive lineup of individual attendees and specific sessions, the deepest impression for me was a general theme that literally started and ended my day.

9 a.m.: While being interviewed by Rainmakers TV about General Mills’ approach to making our difference in the world, I was asked to predict what the corporate social responsibility sector’s landscape will look like in 10 years.

In what I remember as a winding, metaphor-laden answer, I talked about data collection and measurement, and hoped that in ten years we will have evolved from trying to measure and report everything we do in CSR, to measuring and reporting the right things.

5 p.m.: During the conference’s final session – an always uncoveted and typically unmemorable slot as remaining attendees plot airport timing and routes – thought leader, lecturer and founder of Mission Measurement, Jason Saul put sharper words to the sentiment I had ramblingly expressed eight hours earlier.

“We don’t have a measurement problem, we have a strategy problem,” was his opening salvo, and he proceeded to intelligently and inspiringly explain to the audience of corporate do-gooders that:

  • We’re all doing and measuring the same good things.
  • Few of us are measuring the things that make the difference we claim to seek.

To the first point, we’re all charitable, we all have engaged employees, we all source responsibly, and we’re all pretty effective at producing performance-based metrics, which are measures of our ability to execute the programs we designed in the first place.

As a result, we can all achieve good reputations among stakeholders – admittedly in varying degrees, but good nonetheless. So reputation in and of itself is not a true difference maker.

To the second point, because we’re all doing the same good things and are able to produce the same good reputations, a truer measure of a company’s social responsibility is now its social and commercial impact.

What are companies doing? Not only with the 1 to 5 percent of net profits used to advance social change through things like philanthropy, volunteerism, and environmental stewardship (the fumes of our engine), but instead with the other 95 to 99 percent (the engine itself)?

“The bar is higher … society’s issues are becoming business’ opportunities,” Saul concluded.

His insights, which are expounded upon in his new book “Social Innovation, Inc.,”provided the perfect coda to a perfect conference.

Kudos to BCLC, and thank you to Jason Saul, who challenged us to make our work not just mean something (as it all does), but matter (which it all can).