CSR or eyewash!

A common sight during winter months in recent years has been the distribution of blankets by our politicians, corporate leaders and businessmen to communities with little or no real need for them. News and social media coverage, mobile clicks and press conferences may outnumber the total spending on these so-called noble endeavour that go by the CSR (corporate social responsibility) title.

A global trend, CSR is now the subject matter of high-ranking international meetings on the environment, climate etc., with very little to its credit. The trending manner and race for CSR seem to outstrip and dilute its purpose and the term CSR into corrupt social responsibility!

How often do prominent corporate leaders donate to schools, hospitals, or care centres? Why are corporates so prominent in their CSR?

In most cases, a CSR budget is allocated for a year, and it must show a return in the same year. The so-called good corporates also use the CSR budgets to satisfy critical stakeholders to fund their CSR or their spouse's CSR initiatives. I know many examples where top officials, including lawmakers, seek assistance in their areas to garner local support using the fund of CSR.

There are also those that use CSR to get tax benefits, pressing the National Board of Revenue (NBR) for more concessions.

I recall an incident dating back almost 15 years, where Mr Anis Ud Dowla, chairman of ACI Group, surprised his audience by going against the flow in a session on CSR organised by the American Chamber, saying, "Our first duty is to pay taxes to the government and take care of your employees…. once you do that, you can concentrate on CSR."

His words still ring in my ears! Certain big local business houses in the country dodge taxes and deprive employees but are very active in CSR engagements in their local areas.

Let's do a quick calculation of CSR RoI (Return on Investment) of blanket distribution. If one distributes 1,000 blankets worth around Tk 5 lakh, it will cost another Tk 5 lakh to organise a press conference in a five-star hotel. If 10 newspapers cover the story (free of charge), they receive a benefit worth Tk 10 lakh or more of free publicity.

If one considers social media mileage, it will be considered a very profitable investment, let alone the leader's branding. I must confess that I was also a part of this culture at one time.

A study by the Harvard Business Review found that companies with vital CSR programmes experienced a long-term positive impact on financial performance.

Another study by the Global Reporting Initiative found that companies with high levels of sustainability experienced a positive effect on financial performance and increased stakeholder trust. Global corporates and their leaders are very aware of the economic benefits of CSR programmes. Hence, it is more of an investment than a selfless contribution or charity.

CSR is commendable if it is implemented effectively and aligned with the values and goals of the organisation, and tailored to the need of the beneficiaries. When companies engage in responsible CSR that goes beyond profit-making and consider the long-term impact of their actions on society, the environment, and their stakeholders, the benefits can be multifold, including long-term business benefits.

It is vital to ensure that CSR efforts are genuine, transparent, and accountable and not used to distract the public or cover up unethical practices.

The blanket distribution and the likes that go around in the media seasonally make CSR appear to be a corrupt social responsibility!

However, CSR can be a powerful tool for development and transformation if carried out ethically and selflessly. Even the recommended zakat (mandatory charity in Islam) to share the wealth with the underprivileged can make Bangladesh a better place to live in if made with greater planning and sustainability.

The author is a telecom and management expert