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Does a New CSR Buzzword Smell as Sweet?

August 8, 2011

Earlier this summer, I attended two CSR-related conferences – the first was the annual meeting of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) and the other was a Social Innovation Summit at the United Nations. In both meetings, CSR buzzwords bloomed like roses in spring.

Words like “social innovation,” “sustainable value creation,” “shared value creation,” “cross-sectoral collaboration,” “sustainability,” “sustainable partnerships,” “supply chain management,” “knowledge sharing” and “transparency” were used every few minutes throughout the almost three days of meetings. Words like “green,” “philanthropy” and “social responsibility” were nowhere to be found.

The Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, which was founded by Paul Newman, recently issued a new report entitled, “Business at its Best: Driving Sustainable Value Creation.” In it, CECP suggests that Sustainable Value Creation “is a core business strategy that is focused on addressing fundamental societal needs by identifying new, scalable sources of competitive advantage that generate measureable profit and community benefit.”

While I have some fundamental qualms about subjecting CSR to a “measureable profit” test, if you change “measureable profit” to “business value” this definition isn’t much different than those that have been used for “strategic corporate philanthropy” and “corporate social responsibility” for the past twenty or thirty years (in other words, finding intersections between business interests and societal needs), but in the search for the next big thing, more and more buzzwords are created to mean much the same thing. And, perhaps not surprisingly, these new ideas and concepts are quickly embraced by consultants and practitioners alike in an effort to appear current.

The lone voice I heard speak against this proliferation of buzzwords was Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman of One Laptop Per Child, an organization that is trying to get inexpensive computers and tablets in the hands of school children. Negroponte argued that “sustainability” – with its constant expectation of metrics and measureable results -- is the really the wrong word. He encouraged those assembled to return to aspects of social responsibility that don’t require constant measurement, but that we know work because of our experience as socially responsible managers and philanthropists.

The right road is probably the one in between. Let’s measure what we do, but let’s not go overboard. Some things we need to measure (like reducing our carbon footprint) and others are just the right things to do (like disaster relief). And, we can all do our part to cut down on the proliferation of buzzwords, as handy as they may be sometimes.

What do you think?

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