What is CSR really?

In the quest for determining as to what is it that is unique about any program that can be described genuinely as a Corporate Social Responsibility Program, one needs to look each such program and determine its sustainability and the impact it has created. I am looking at such projects and to give you a perspective so that you can judge what CSR really means.

In order to look at the various nuances of  CSR one needs to ask questions such as  “Is philanthropy CSR”? Is creating infrastructure like roads and water supply primarily to serve one’s business needs that also incidentally serves a community a CSR program? Can corporate leaders spend shareholder’s funds for unbridled CSR activities? I honestly feel that one has to take a closer look at every plan that has a CSR stamp to determine whether it is really a CSR program. And one way to do that is to examine each one of them and then draw some broad specifications or pre-requisites.

So let me start where one has to start. And that is looking at individual initiatives. As I come across individuals and corporate entities that are working towards CSR, I will share my experiences with you. Here are some of my views on a few and also the story of an individual who is really doing something wonderful.

Pinnacle Opportunities, which I co-founded with Mr. Murali Vullaganti, works as a catalyst for social entrepreneurs to enrich rural India ( www.pinnacle-opportunities.org ). Pinnacle is aspiring to arouse Individual Social Responsibility (ISR) as an essential engine to power Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. In my day to day activities dealing with many programs, I come across some interesting revelations. Some of them are honestly a cause for worry.

But then there is perhaps a charitable way of looking at all these. So long as something is done to ameliorate the conditions of a lot of miserably poor people in India, I suppose one can close an eye or two (sometimes both the eyes) as to how some corporate entities also try to ride on it for some publicity as well. But anyone starting any program without a real intention to sustain it until some tangible long term goals are achieved may perhaps be doing a great disservice or I would even call it a crime to give hope to unsuspecting souls.

I was a bit amused by the sheer capacity of some individuals in corporate entities who have managed to stretch CSR to its limits and give it a twisted meaning.  Like this bold advertisement by one of the cola companies “I can’t speak. But my voice resonates in every sip”. In a series of color advertisements in the print media, the multinational cola company tries to get attention on itself or trying to divert attention by riding on the unfortunate challenges and miseries of some 80 deaf and dumb souls they employ as bottle inspectors. I found this advertisement rather appalling. One must read the whole copy to feel the concentrated drop of distaste.

Then there is a desi multinational that runs a program called “Shakti” seeking to empower rural women. A good program but again, to my mind it is a bit of a twist. What do they do? They get these rural impoverished women to sell their company’s products in rural areas. I find it difficult to certify this as a true CSR program. But it is pardonable.  Ever since C.K.Prahlad wrote the book ‘The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid”, certain corporate entities are trying to clothe their rural business strategies wherever possible with a CSR cloak.
Let me reveal something that I have been keeping it to myself. When I was holding a televised roundtable on CSR where the theme was “How to bring light into the lives of people”, I had one of the most admirable, young and successful entrepreneurs from a famous business house who was reluctant to talk about his CSR initiatives. He believed that advertised generosity has no virtue. We had to literally coax him to unravel their involvement. About a couple of years back the group was spending close to Rs.90 Crores (Close to US $ 23 million) per annum on CSR programs. Such was the humility and personal involvement of Mr. Kumar Mangalam Birla and his family that I am convinced that without individual attention and involvement no CSR program can be sustained and have long term and meaningful impact. The Birlas and Tata are good examples of what such programs can achieve.

Often many people mix up philanthropy for programs that can be termed as socially responsible. It is hard to distinguish. But there is clarity on this when one listens to Martin Luther King Jr. who said “Philanthropy is commendable but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

A real live example

Here is my brief impression of a remarkable individual. I had recently met a very interesting person and a successful entrepreneur who is also quite a philanthropist.  Mr. P.N.C.Menon, the Chairman of Sobha Developers in Bangalore is a distinctly different individual. Someone very hard to find in the real estate industry, Mr. Menon is capable of bringing light into the life of people.

The reason I thought I will share the experience of my interaction with him is because his social ventures have very clear goals and they are indeed long term. They are not simply an extension of some philanthropic exuberance but a genuine concern to lend a helping hand to the needy. When he recently announced that he would give away 600 brand new flats to the poor, some eye brows were raised in the industry.

Seeing is believing and so I took a bumpy drive to his village in Panniyamkara (Kerala) where the Sobha Hermitage is located. It is about 2 kms from Vadakkenchery, a small town on the way to Palghat in Kerala. He has adopted two villages in the district of Palakkad and has initiated a detailed demographic survey of the people in the two villages. The purpose of the survey is to assess the long term requirements of the community and accordingly build plans and projects. He has employed PhDs to scientifically interpret the survey and do development planning just as any government would do. He is bent on improving their lot.

Spread over some 23 acres, the Sobha Hermitage is a state of the art facility with all modern amenities that one would only find in star properties. In order to qualify for admission, there is one stringent condition. You have to be poor, really poor.

He has built a beautiful school for the local community that will put to shame any private commercial school. The admission is given only to children from the really poor families. A clean hospital that is well equipped, a large mechanized laundry, a big kitchen and other enviable facilities are some of the unique features that the poor have access to. He provides home for the neglected and young widows with children who suddenly become vulnerable.Their children study in these schools and the young widow is trained to work. Sobha Hermitage and all the allied ventures provide employment to many of the local people. I asked him one question that could have been taken amiss. And that was – Do you feel like being a GOD ? – At least that is what I heard people tell me that he is GOD sent.

He has a simple answer. He provides scholarships to many deserving students and he does not interact with the beneficiaries. As a matter of principle he does not even see the beneficiary. He says the danger of seeing them is that it arouses a sense of ego and that can make you feel like GOD. I had to eat my words and did learn a few things from this man. Unfortunately, he is not an Indian. He is an Omani national of Indian origin, but with a large heart that is fit for kings.

As I discover more such people I will bring them in front of you.

One thought on “What is CSR really?

  1. Earlier direct Message resent with further commitment. N.

    Dear Mr. Ranganathan,

    I’m 55, and just given up my last job as an Investment banker into Private Equity because I felt “enough is enough”.

    I have gone through your profile and I feel need to interact with you. I feel the development Corporate Social Responsibility is the need of the hour. I want to formalize a structure which will identify, execute and monitor Social initiatives for the corporates and also to act as a refferal and mentoring body for social entrepreneurs unable to approach corporates.

    I need abrain storming session with you and then it forward from there.

    I’m based in Mumbai (but no problem travelling to meet you) and my mobile no. 09820310467.

    Rgds
    Narendra

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