Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Social Change

Time to Aim Higher than CSR

Map of Gross National Happiness
 ~ My one-time high school classmate, Paul Klein, is now a sometime blogger for Forbes, where he pens thoughtful pieces arising from his work advising corporations on CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility. Today he published a piece on "the business value of social change."

It's a worthwhile read, and raises an intriguing point that incessant blather about CSR conveniently skirts: can CSR alone make a real difference when it remains subservient to the core corporate purpose of maximizing profit?

In that subservience, the value of CSR is diminished often to the point of window dressing. It becomes a marketing outreach element, a checkbox on the modern enterprise's citizenry list, and, for too many, not much more than greenwashing or its social impact equivalent.

Paul writes:
It’s finally become clear to me that the only sustainable way for corporations to derive real business benefit from CSR is through meaningful and measurable social change.
So very true, but so very hard to really do. In an exchange he and I had about the post, Paul added that the challenge is to convince corporate leaders that social change is good for business and that the biggest barrier is measurement—the qualitative long-term social change outcomes versus the standard quarterly capitalism. But it is hard to measure social change, if only because the worthiness and desirability of that change is such a politically charged subject. People simply do not agree on what the social goals should be. To be somewhat simplistic, one political viewpoint exalts equality of opportunity without regard for circumstance or impediments, historical, cultural or societal than make the playing field much less than level. Another viewpoint demands redress of those imbalances as a necessary precondition to a true equality that enables a virtuous and pure meritocracy. The more extreme position has been characterized, mostly unfairly, as demanding equality of outcomes. Both are hopelessly idealistic and pragmatically more of a Platonic ideal than something achievable in the roiling chaos of real societies. Both (and other viewpoints) founder on the disagreement of what social metrics should be measured and how.

Measuring money, on the other hand, is easy: more is better. But what metrics of social change can all embrace? One need look no further than the Occupy movement to see how resistant broad swaths of today's elite are to such things as income equality, altruistic ideals of the primacy of human rights, and the necessity of ensuring a minimal level of societal success. Meanwhile the Occupiers balk at a system that strongly appears to assist the haves over the have-nots, and fringe elements engage in a doctrinaire assault on capitalism and free enterprise itself.

Measures of social value exist (Gross National Happiness!) but there is huge opposition in the US to anything that does not result from magical thinking about the marketplace. Thus, for both sides, it comes down to a question of what the values of capitalism should be.

CSR cannot be successful until the ethical tenets of our broader society are re-examined and re-ordered. There needs to be a broader idea of what the "marketplace" is or ought to be. Does it exist as an end unto itself, or is it instead a vehicle to a better society? Unless one posits, as most do not, that capitalism should be replaced (with what exactly?) then the challenge is define metrics that quantify the extent to which it does good. As I've written before, our current political polarization is at heart not about economics, or particular policies, or political persuasions, it is about what we should be as a country. An increasingly schizophrenic nation is of two minds. It is an American identity crisis.

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