CSR: good for society, good for business

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After I read a newspaper report about the state of drought in Maharashtra and how man and animal were both at the mercy of the next monsoon, I called up my friend. He is the CEO of a company that is involved in corporate social responsibility (CSR) work (including water conservation) in several villages.

“I appreciate your concern, Mohan! We now have someone looking after our CSR activity. I will ask him to speak to you. Catch up later!”

That was abrupt! Was he too busy running the business to bother about CSR? My conversation with his new CSR Manager a day later was revealing.

“Thank you, Mr. Joshi for your interest in my work. To be honest, I am busy with my year-end paperwork. I have budgets to prepare and I need to close year-end issues with our partner NGOs. Your suggestions are great, but I just don’t have the bandwidth to take up anything new. I have just one intern to help me. And the boss wants the impact presentation tomorrow.”

While I commiserated with him, I could not help wondering if the profit centres in my friend’s company made do with one intern and used that excuse: no bandwidth.

Saving 5000 mothers

Around the time the law mandated companies to spend a portion of their profits for social good, some of us were in Jawhar, a remote district in Palghar, Maharashtra. This place had various problems, but the specific issue on our radar was maternal mortality.

It was a familiar story—early marriage, the pressure to give birth to a male child leading to repeated pregnancies, no access to medical care and utter neglect of nutrition. Haemoglobin levels in expectant mothers in the region were at times less than 4 g/dl (whereas in a normal, urban setting a drop below 10 g/dl is enough to set off alarm bells).

Over the next three years, we achieved a fair amount of success—Hb levels rose, maternal mortality fell. Apart from the government, the Indian Medical Association and the NGO Pragati Pratishtan, many shared our work and the satisfaction we derived from it.

Meaningful engagement

I remember interacting with the audit team from one of the companies. They came there to ensure the medicines were being put to good use. They went back transformed, having seen how they were helping transform the very lives of poor villagers and save many mothers and infants.

I shared the Jawhar story with my busy CEO friend as we met at a Rotary lunch. I believed the audit team went back more committed to their employer, more charged up to do better work, I told him. And all of them became ambassadors for their company’s products. The other participating companies too must have experienced the positive change, if they had bothered to keep their customers and employees posted.

I was getting somewhere, but I could see my friend was still sceptical.

When you do good, sustainable work, you are fulfilling your responsibility to society. And, in the process, when you ensure your brand gets greater visibility, you are fulfilling your responsibility to all those who have a stake in your business.

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Those who don’t count, count on Gus

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Starting a new series on “unseen faces”. Meet Gus in the first instalment.


1963.

Gus, 12, has just won the full house in Housie (Bingo) in his school. The prizes had been on display even before the game started. He is eager to receive the first prize from the school’s Summer Holiday Camp Manager. It is a beautiful statue of Our Lady. He can’t stop smiling when he accepts it.

Then, in a moment, his world changed.

“You take this,” the Camp Manager took away the statue and handed him a smaller bust, which was chipped. The boy who had won the second prize happened to be from an affluent family and deserved the better prize, a shocked Gus was told. Surely, it would make no difference to Gus, right?

Gus felt angry and sad. An inferior prize, just because he was poor?

He was already waging another battle at home. Because he was standing up to an alcoholic and trying to protect his mother and four little siblings. He felt responsible for them.

Why the world was so unfair, he wondered. He just had to grow up and find a job, any job, that would give him money so that he could look after his family.


2019.

Gus is overseeing another game of Housie with a group of girls and boys, all around the age of 16. For every boy and girl, it is an effort and an achievement to face a group of people and read out the numbers by turn. Gus gently prods a boy to make eye contact while announcing a number. One girl who has problems with her sight and hearing (”I want to be an accountant”) is helped by her neighbour.

There are no statues; the winners get mints and chocolates. They are all equal. The real prize is the time they get to spend together, to work together and to enjoy themselves.

At every opportunity, Gus slips in a tip, a piece of advice. Through games, dance and music they are picking up social skills. And, for them, something that is less difficult to spell than acquire—confidence.

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