World over, Corporate Social Responsibility has become such a buzzword and its acronym CSR has become all pervasive, but how far can CSR help in bringing about desired change in improving the condition of our planet and its inhabitants? The antecedents of CSR are varied. In India, in a landmark amendment of the Company Act in 2013, profit making corporations above a certain threshold were mandated to set aside two percent of their profits for social causes. In other geographies, a host of business enterprises voluntarily execute CSR projects either as good corporate citizens or simply as sound corporate strategists.
On the other hand, corporations around the globe have been denounced for their CSR efforts which are perceived as feeding the planet with the same hand that exploits its. Whichever way you look at it, it would be foolish to believe that solving wicked problems of the world is only the responsibility of the corporate sector and that legislation will get the job done. If we take a close look at the development space, there is a robust and thriving ecosystem for bringing about change across the globe. Guided by the UN and involving national governments and a myriad of non-governmental and non-profit entities, besides the corporate sector, efforts continue to make the planet livable and in helping every individual reach their potential.
Yet, if we were to perform a rain check on our progress, we would be dismayed to know that it is way slower than what is needed. For instance, when the UN launched its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) program in 2015, these were targeted for achievement by the year 2030, but of late there is a growing concern that SDGs may not get achieved till 2075 or till the turn of the century. This, therefore, requires a serious look at what’s missing.
So, what will really transform our world, make our planet sustainable and our humanity more caring and compassionate? To address root causes we need to zero down on the potential role of the individual and introduce what I describe as Personal Social Responsibility or PSR. Organizations do not exist on their own. They exist because of individuals who form the very unit of every organization. John F Kennedy, famously stated “Ask not what the country can do for you; ask what you can do for the country, ” and in this context it applies regardless of whether the organization is a national government, corporation or a social sector entity.
There are two key elements of PSR and I see these as being hyphenated of sorts. These elements are Being and Doing. The starting point in PSR is about being which needs to manifest itself in individual self-transformation and imbibing universal values. Without this, we are not going to get anywhere. Way back in 1936, Madame Sophia Wadia, an Indian citizen of Colombian descent and an active member of the Theosophical Society of India, delivered a lecture to The Social Service League of Bombay on ‘The Spiritual Basis of Social Service.’ In this lecture, while admiring the work of the league, she said “I am one who is convinced that, as herculean as the task may appear, in the long run the Buddha’s way would be found to be the only short-cut.” Essentially, she was invoking her audience to focus on their being without which it would be immensely difficult to eliminate human misery and sorrow and that these would only perpetuate.
Related to being, is doing. What can individuals do in their personal capacities? In November last year, the U.N. as part of its Perception Change Project published a list of 170 Daily Actions. These are daily actions which individuals can execute on their very own and without the help of any institutional set-up. I know of many friends who have taken up to volunteering and have undertaken projects such as setting up urban roof gardens, recycling plastic, care giving, teaching school kids and supporting several causes. Never underestimate the power of the ordinary individual to create systemic shifts as we can see how Greta Thunberg, a sixteen year old Swedish girl, has become the conscience of humanity by championing the environment.
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Sharing my own experience, I volunteer for V Care Foundation, a cancer care NGO for low income groups and am now on their Board of Trustees. I support another NGO called Goonj that creates enormous social value out of discarded household goods by conducting a twice yearly collection drive in my residential building and neighborhood. I have become environmentally very conscious and diligent about my consumption preferences.
My first brush with V Care Foundation and with the social sector came thanks to Sam Palmisano, then Chairman of IBM, who in 2011 urged every IBMer to take on a day of service as part of our centenary celebration. Today, IBM runs a program called IBM Volunteers and so do hundreds of other corporations. Later, it was a one month social sabbatical sponsored by IBM’s Corporate Service Corps that introduced me to the joy of pro bono consulting, helping NGOs in capacity building efforts. It is gratifying to note that many corporations have started pro bono programs for their executives.
The next big wave in the world will belong to volunteers. In India we are witnessing the birth of Every Indian Volunteering, a movement to embed a culture of volunteering. The real litmus test for any CSR program is thus not the amount of budget that has been set aside for social activities but the number of catalysts and change makers it produces or is capable of producing. World over, corporations are realizing that give back is much more than writing a check. Whether it is spreading awareness or skills based or output oriented volunteering, Personal Social Responsibility can plug what is missing in development programs. Watch out for PSR, here it comes!
Shakti Saran is a Senior Fellow with PYXERA Global. All views expressed are his own