Recently, a CSR leader in a certain industry asked me a very common question. For the sake of the storytelling, let’s pretend that they are one of many companies that make unicorn saddles.

“What are all the other Unicorn Saddle companies doing with their workplace giving and employee engagement efforts?”
“Why?” I asked.
“I want to make sure we’re in step with them, I want to make sure we’re trending, that we’re keeping up.”
“Ah,” I answered, “That’s what I suspected. What are you hoping to hear?”
The unicorn saddle CSR leader laughed, “I guess I don’t know. I just want to make sure we’re not doing too much or too little in comparison?”

Oh, no. I mean sure, harmony in general is a good thing. It’s both pleasing to the ear and the atmosphere. In the matter of CSR, however, harmony—especially among industry leaders—is, well, kinda one note. Oh look, all of the same unicorn saddle companies offer their employees paid time off to volunteer, a solid workplace giving annual campaign focused on choice, and a moderate dollars for doers program. Neat. *yawn*

choir blog

By Ben Bisbee

Like the efforts of a large choir, the harmony of the collective efforts of everyone singing the same song looks impressive, but at its core it’s not necessarily dynamic. Now, balance that against the gripping passion and energy of a singing contest? Individual singers, singing their hearts out against one another to be number one? Now that is a thrill to watch and hear. Why? It’s multi-faceted, it’s competitive, and it’s often precarious.

“But Ben, CSR is an industry standard … we’re not going for precarious …”

And that’s your mistake. No, really. Let me show you.

CSR has been an industry standard since at least the mid 1980s, with its roots first taking hold in the mid 1960s. It was originally a way for a businesses to showcase a self regulatory environment focused on the topics of public image, industry law, ethics, and international and environmental efforts. Over time, it became an industry forum for a company to articulate to its current and potential investors, its employees, and consumers how compassionate and forward thinking it is within its industry and the community.

But like any new, cool thing, it often falls prey to standards—and worse—those standards then become the box in which the program lives instead of just a set of markers or best practices. And worse still is that everyone starts to line their boxes up in neat little rows to stay even more standardized to effectively harmonize. *frowny face*

There will be a moment when you stop and ask “Why am I doing this again?” Remember who benefits from your actions. Remember that you’re doing amazing things on behalf of your company for people and causes that matter.

What happened? Why this choral effect among the world of CSR efforts? As for me, I have my theories. In brief, I think it’s easy to continue to standardize things into oblivion. This level of standardization helps to ensure that the public will see a company as clear, simple, and focused.

But that’s the thing about singing competitions: you can’t rely on the guy next to you to take up the slack. You can’t rely on the rest of the choir. You have to sing proudly and strongly while focused on the challenge. You have to do this while facing anxiety and be willing to take chances and make mistakes all in the name of hitting those highest of notes to take your song to the finish line.

Just as in the world of corporate social responsibility, you need to dig deeper on the issues you, your employees, and your consumers care about. You need to find new and creative ways to create impact and to build new norms. You need to be willing to get dirty and sweaty and anxious and brave.

“But Ben, I rely on the choir. I don’t have the singing skills to win a contest!”

For the record, I don’t believe you; but I’ll entertain the thought. And because I’m such a great guy, I’ll even give you a few ideas to help you believe in yourself and sing like you’ve never sung before!

Reconnect with your musical passions.

Why is your company invested in CSR? Oh sure, it’s a common business standard. But really … why? Maybe you believe your company can change the world. Maybe you are invested in creating opportunities for your employees or customers help you create social impact. Maybe it just looks good to the investors. We all like to look good; there is no harm in that. But it’s time to reconnect with your roots and the passions associated with your company’s CSR program. This will only serve to help you grow and enhance your program.

Find a singing coach.

I’m not here to solicit you on behalf of a really wonderful—often handsome—set of folks who occasionally let me write on their blog. No, there are several ways to find good coaching: industry peers, CSR conferences, and companies like this one. But essentially, find a coach; find someone to inspire you. Sometimes you just need someone to help you with the vision or offer you the practice or program support. These opportunities exist; you just need to seek them out.

Get competitive.

No, really. Do you support programs that deal with issues likes children’s hunger or disaster or adult literacy? Passionately? Do you know of other companies that also support these issues? Take it to the next level. Work to be the best supporter in the industry. Offer your employees more time off or more matching or work with specific nonprofits to develop mutually effective custom programs that focus on real solutions. Get hungry. Get competitive. Go further on behalf of your programs and your passions.

Remember the audience.

There will be a moment when you stop and ask “Why am I doing this again?” Remember who benefits from your actions. Remember that you’re doing amazing things on behalf of your company for people and causes that matter. In those moments when it will feel precarious, remember the benefactors and the lives you affect, and not just those on the receiving end, but also your investors, employees, and consumers—now and future.

What can CSR as a singing contest gain us? What happens when someone steps away from the choir and performs a solo? Or better yet, people get competitive in their singing? In the world of CSR you see managers sharpening their skills. You see employees challenged to try new things and dig deeper. You see the public committing more deeply to the causes of the company because essentially the company themselves are so deeply committed. The true harmony for effective change is dynamic voices working to sing the best and loudest, not trying to sound like everyone else.

Ben Bisbee
Guest blogger, CSR nonprofit professional
Connect with Ben on LinkedIn

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