S. Ramachander

THE subject of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is moving to the mainstream of managerial discussion. A recent CII summit exclusively devoted to the theme was evidence of this. Long before governance became a core issue at board level, some organisations led by sensitive individuals had developed plans and norms, even if unwritten, about how to "do well by doing good" to the surrounding community.

Jamsetjee Tata was a 19th century pioneer in this direction. The belief behind such moves from the early years of industrialisation, was that a visibly flourishing and growing corporate unit could never be an island unto itself.

It was always part of the society in which it was placed, drawing much of its sustenance from it skills, labour, political support, and goodwill besides many services. Until public opinion became more vocal, however, enterprises merely reacted to articulated needs. Other initiatives, such as enabling a higher standard of schooling, roads, housing, and health services, used to happen only when the factory or business was situated in a far away place, and the township became a commercial necessity.

The beneficiaries were largely the employees' families, which also helped draw the right calibre of senior professional away from the temptations of the cities. A truly well managed, socially engaged enterprise, on the other hand, directs its efforts at the wider society with a view to significantly raising the standards of hygiene, education and so on. Thus women, the underprivileged and children are the most important target beneficiaries. What makes for the success of such CSR?

According to Mr Ashoke Joshi, a former IAS officer heading the Srinivasan Services trust, which is supported by Sundaram Clayton and TVS Motor Company, the secret consists of not looking at it as charity but a duty and a matter of enlightened citizenship. One important rule to follow is never to give away anything entirely free. In other words, `just throwing money at the problem' will not work. By always encouraging the community to come forth with some contribution, even if in kind, to make the project happen, one ensures a much-needed sense of ownership. Without such participation there would clearly be a "them and us" feeling separating the giver and the receiver, as happens with any governmental initiative. The completed task, be it a school building, a wall, a tank, a temple, or a road will then truly belong to everyone.

Women of the Hosur Township have provided an excellent example of not only maintaining but also making a business proposition of a well-equipped public pay-toilet facility attached to the bus terminus. The group of women who run the facility also manage the upkeep of the terminal premises themselves. It is almost an object of pride in self-help for the neighbourhood.

Another group of women who got together to make and supply chappathis to a major factory canteen nearby, had difficulties in obtaining permission from the men in the community to use a public building for the cooking. They sorted out the problem by taking a bank loan to build a small cookhouse, funded entirely out of the earnings from selling the chappathis.

There are many such examples, which show the enormous potential not merely to win invaluable goodwill from CSR but also make a real and lasting contribution. It is facilitation and co-ordination and guidance, which are more far-reaching in impact, than money outlays alone. Another guideline to remember is seeing CSR efforts as entirely complementary to the governmental programmes. Often the latter are well meant but suffer for lack of follow through, and independent management applied to it as well as some shortfalls in the funding. The corporate effort should position itself ideally as providing the last-mile connectivity to the project, ensuring that the battle is not lost due to want of a shoe-nail; and in synergy with the existing structure, delivering the benefit to the community.

(Feedback can be sent to srchander23@netscape.net)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 19, 2005)
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