Corporate Social Innovation

Is it the natural progression from CSR?


The idea of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been around for a long time and is something that is well embraced by companies across the world. CSR is essentially the idea that a company should be doing some social good, but has unfortunately become more of a PR exercise rather than the philosophy that John Elkington originally coined in 1994. It is fashionable to be seen as ‘environmentally friendly’ so many companies attempt to make themselves appear that way without working to change systemic elements that are likely to make the biggest difference. For instance, being a paper free office, but allowing your manufacturing plants to pump pollutants into rivers.

One of the major issues with it is simply that it is easy to appear to have a strong CSR programme. Energy saving lightbulbs are simple to fit, a charity day can be photographed then sent to the media, and donating to a local charity can certainly get you in their good books. The problem is that CSR shouldn’t be some arbitrary days or events that occur infrequently, it needs to be a consistent and management-driven change throughout the psychology of the company.

This shortcoming is what Corporate Social Innovation (CSI) is attempting to fill.

CSI is, broadly speaking, the idea that a company should be directing resources towards innovation within areas that will do societal or environmental good. So rather than just having the odd charity day, they could direct 10% of their employees’ time to something that does good. This wouldn’t necessarily be something like litter picking or what people may think of as traditional voluntary work, but using their business skills to create innovations to do good. For instance, the Shell Foundation partnered with Husk Power Systems to create and distribute biomass electricity generators, which they then used to provide electricity to 200,000 people in 30 villages in rural India. You could also look to Facebook (who admittedly have a bit of a patchy recent record on societal good) who implemented Safety Check where people in an area that have been impacted by a natural disaster or terrorist attack can check in to let their loved ones know they are ok.

These are both powerful tools for societal good, but neither would have come about with traditional CSR when looked at through its traditional prism. Instead the powerful innovative minds that work in these huge companies can be used to solve some of the biggest issues currently impacting the world.

This may sound like a flight of fancy, but the opportunity to do this kind of work that will genuinely help the world is likely to conversely see a better workforce throughout the entire company. By 2025 Millennials are likely to make up 75% of the US workforce and they want to make sure their work is having a positive impact on the world. According to The Millennial Impact, 72% of Millennials have volunteered for a charitable cause in the past year and 94% of Millennials enjoyed using their skills to help a cause.

If a company can offer more than simple lip service and appearances to the concept of CSR and instead actively donate their Millennial employee’s time to a cause, they are therefore more likely to recruit better, more engaged employees than a company that doesn’t. This will naturally lead to improvements across all areas of the company as these more engaged, energized, and happy workers will take this same energy to everything they do, improving bottom lines across the enterprise.

Another major benefit is that, as with the Shell and Husk example, it allows companies to collaborate and potentially forge lasting relationship that could eventually benefit both businesses outside of the CSI initiative. Given that the innovation isn’t being undertaken for a business purpose it could potentially allow powerful rivals to collaborate got social good, something that is unlikely to happen in other circumstances.

The concept behind CSI is strong and could have a huge impact on the way that businesses approach doing social good in the future. It clearly requires a shift in mindset and a realization that this kind of innovation, which doesn’t directly impact bottom line in itself, could have a huge impact on the health of your company as well as society. 

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