Pulse on Citizenship: CSR Grows Up With a New Generation

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a monthly series from Microsoft’s Citizenship team that appears on the second Wednesday of every month. Pulse on Citizenship provides insight and commentary on topics and trends in corporate citizenship.

You feel old when you realize that your career and the field you work in both started around the same time, at least when your field isn’t some brand-new offshoot of cyber-crypto-nano-technology. (I don’t know if that exists or not, but it certainly sounds cutting edge.)

That’s my case. I joined the staff of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) whose mission is to work with business to create a just and sustainable world. It was shortly after the organization was founded, and the field of corporate social responsibility was beginning to emerge as a discipline distinct from business ethics, environment, health, safety and community affairs.

I mention this because I recently had the privilege of attending the 20th annual BSR conference. From there I went straight on to the annual conference of Net Impact, a network of students–and increasingly of business professionals–interested in advancing socially and environmentally sustainable business strategies. The two back-to-back conferences provided a good opportunity to reflect on where the corporate responsibility field has been over the past two decades and where it appears to be going.

The first thing of note is how well established corporate social responsibility has become within large companies. Name a brand at random and they likely had someone among the 1,000 attendees at the BSR conference. That was not the case when I attended my first BSR conference a decade ago.

The field is also maturing into distinct specialties with lots of focused roles, particularly around reporting and addressing social and environmental issues across supply chain. Also notable is the fluidity of people’s careers within the field. I met lots of people who had formerly worked in government or at institutions like the World Bank and were now working in companies on the same sustainable development agenda. Similarly, others had gone from working within companies to leading big non-profit groups. The walls between the government, private and non-profit sectors have become a lot more permeable.

While the field of corporate responsibility seems healthy, well-established — and here to stay — there also is a growing recognition of the need for the field to contribute to business decisions more systematically. In particular, there’s a lot of discussion of a word we think about a lot at Microsoft: scale. There’s a willingness to look beyond old approaches to better achieve impact at the scale that’s needed. For example, as the number of corporate responsibility reports explodes, there are growing calls to explore integrated reporting that focuses more deeply on a few core CSR issues of most importance to a particular business or sector rather than a broader and sometimes scattershot approach.

If you want to see who is ready to lead the charge developing the next generation of corporate responsibility, spend a few days among the 3,000 attendees at the annual Net Impact conference. I met students planning new online communities to serve bullied kids and young entrepreneurs developing innovative ways of financing new solar developments. I spoke on several panels—one on supply chain responsibility and one on the business importance of equality for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees equality in the workplace.

The audiences were engaged, enthusiastic, interested in learning from others in the field, but not hesitant to bring their own perspectives and suggestions for new approaches. They won’t get everything right, just as my generation of CSR professionals certainly hasn’t, but the Net Impact conference boosted my confidence the field will continue to grow in ways it needs to achieve its full potential.

About the Author

Director of Corporate Citizenship, Microsoft