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Vocations and Avocations: Making CSR globally and morally relevant

In this era, where we as human beings are connected on multiple levels, a global outlook will be immensely beneficial for us in the field of social change where we try to make the three broad stakeholders – corporates, governments and NGOs/CSOs - collaborate. Whatever be the difficulty of engaging with and among each other we need to agree to work together for the greater good. Perspectives gained from being part of two large movements: the right to food campaign and helping with public surveys of the rural employment guarantee scheme, both of which are national level movements, have given me a fair understanding of the perseverant hard work put in by NGOs/CSOs from various parts of the country and the fruits it has borne. The government, which is after all the largest player, has humongous resources available at its disposal and has machinery which can reach deep into the country. And we in the corporate world- we know our strengths anyway.

Even as we take cognizance of what Theodore Levitte wrote in the ‘50s, “… business has only two responsibilities – to obey the elementary canons of everyday face to face civility and to seek material gain” we may let our philosophical antennae tuned into the wellbeing of the humanity at large. If that tuning requires one to spend some time on the ground, we should try to do it. In this context I am reminded of a good friend, Sai Raj, the MD of

Synergy Navis, who at the end of our day’s visits to a few NGOs sighed, “…and I thought I had problems”. Sure enough because of that personal contact, he and his team are physically working closely with Rainbow Homes in Pune since then.

People in C-suites are measured against very tangible goals—shareholder value, profits, revenue growth, etc—and are rewarded for achieving them. These become their strong personal drivers too. So, how does one hold maximizing profits as well as doing social good as goals at the same time in life? But then such dichotomies exist in the world in several aspects of our lives and we have been managing it, so we could consciously strive to strike a balance here too. Perhaps to help us achieve that balance Robert Frost advised that it is not enough to do one’s work faithfully but that we should strive to make our vocations into our avocations:

My objective in living is to unite
My vocation and my avocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
For only where love and need are one
And work is play for mortal stakes
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven’s and the Future’s sakes.

We could perhaps use a few nudges to think on those lines of aligning to humanity at large:

  • Dr Tara Nair, a friend, in her essay on Binding Stakeholders into Moral Communities, invites us to think on Corporate Social Performance (CSP) which could perhaps help businesses by exploring the underlying interaction among three dimensions: the principles (CSR responsibilities - philosophical orientation), the processes (corporate social responsiveness - institutional orientation), and the policies (social issues management – organizational orientation).
  • Should we try to leverage every bit of the branding which can come our way while engaging in social activities? Or could we just stop trying to gain anything out of our social engagements?
  • Private equity and venture capital has always been chasing the elite...people from top colleges / organizations attract Risk capital. People like many of us with elite degrees and corporate standings may not be the real risk takers since we have the best fall back options. There are many in remote areas who are persevering in tough conditions without any backing trying to work out new things every day to survive, even in small businesses. Could one channel risk capital in this direction?
  • How can one trigger social impact? What modifications need to be made to our current managerial paradigms? Could we endeavor to be globally impactful in the social field where we could seamlessly bring entrepreneurial leadership to large scale social transformations which is perhaps one effective way to engineer maximum social impact in the world?
  • Could we keep nature in the center of things when we start to work on a new idea or when trying to solve a new business problem/product? When trying to solve a social problem as part of CSR, could the R&D departments / organizations be physically close to the areas that we are trying to solve a problem of/in?
  • Could we encourage social intrapreneurship in our companies? Could such social enterprises/organizations get enough of the CSR department’s ‘patient’ capital?

Ela Bhat’s counsel, though a few years old, remains fresh in my mind, “Poverty is violence, when you consume more than what you require, you operate in the realm of violence. Simplicity is ahimsa/non-violence.” We may at times feel proud that we are givers and hence at a higher standing, but one tribal tenet implores us to recognize the fact that if there are no potential takers, a potential giver cannot become an actual giver. Imagine having to live a life without having the chance/opportunity to give! The sooner we internalize this ancient wisdom, the easier it becomes for us to operate in the space of CSR with a clear mind. When we reflect on why we are doing what we are doing and how distant a space we came from, I wonder whether it is a higher design at play, or whether we all have in us an innate fount of empathy that could be channeled to touch other's lives and help build that of others with compassion.