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October 07, 2009

Live from World Business Forum: Clinton On How To Maximize Good Intentions

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) seems to mostly mean how to make companies look not so evil. So, when former President Bill Clinton this afternoon mentioned the goal of "maximizing good intentions" in whatever it is you choose to do to address the world's ills, my ears pricked up. 


The Clinton Global Initiative, which he said brings leaders from across the world to discuss how to solve international problems such as providing impoverished areas with clean drinking water and how to stop deforestation, might, on a smaller level, be a good model for your own CSR program. Clinton pointed out that while some give millions to the clean drinking water program, others give just a dollar, and even so, provide clean water for 10 children. 

Most of your companies won't be able to bring together local leaders across the world, but many of you are able to summon local business leaders across the country and in particular regions of the world. What if, as part of your CSR push, you annually asked business partners such as suppliers and companies you don't directly compete with to join your executives and a handful of young high-potentials at a gathering in which you discuss how to combine your resources to address a specific local challenge such as providing disadvantaged children with vaccinations and/or free breakfasts for those same children and/or help towards a college education?  

It's tempting to make your CSR initiative all about making you, like I said, look not so evil, but it could be so much more than that. You also could parlay the CSR program into a development opportunity for employees with teambuilding exercises encompassing community service such as beach cleanups and building houses for Habitat for Humanity, but, more selfishly, you could use community involvement as a proving ground for your company's future leaders. Teambuilding is spectacular, but what about taking your top three candidates for chief marketing officer, and asking each of them to head a separate CSR-driven community program sponsored by your company?  Watch how they handle that challenge, including how they summon human and financial resources, publicize it, and deal with interpersonal conflict, and you have a precise preview of what you'll get when you put them in a key executive position. 

To maximize your company's good intentions (if, indeed, they are good intentions and not just an attempt to salvage a reputation hurt by lay-offs and cruel treatment of the remaining workforce), don't be lackadaisical in your CSR approach. In other words, don't just send out a mass e-mail entitled Planet Ending Relief with a request for donations, and expect that to earn you a clear conscience. It's great to ask for help, and it can't hurt, but what would be better is to challenge employees (with a substantive reward) to come up with their own novel, enterprising ideas for providing aid. This exercise of thinking up new solutions for a community crisis counts as innovation training. Getting the brain used to solving difficult problems, even if—gasp—it's for the public good, works the same parts of the mind that can be used to create billion dollar products and services. 

You also can maximize the good intentions by using CSR for fun. It's hard for some to believe, but as fun as new SUVs and additional vacation homes are, helping others also can be fun, and not just because of that thing your mother used to tell you about helping others making you feel fulfilled. What if, for example, a local charity needed 50 employees to play softball once a week with struggling teens, or if (my dream) the company decided to adopt 100 stray dogs and cats and set them up in a company-sponsored space that required 100 to 200 employees to take turns staffing?  A dream come true for animal lovers!  

Incentives (a bad word at some companies these days) can also be linked to CSR. A trip to a gorgeous place can be used as an opportunity to also participate in help for the locals or for the local wildlife. From a selfish perspective, the incentive then will pay for itself in positive publicity, and will offset some of the feared criticism about sending spoiled corporate executives on trips to the spa. If you really want to be cutting-edge about incentives and CSR, think instead about sending a batch of deserving entry and mid-level workers on one of these beautiful place/community aid trips. What a great way to motivate high-potentials you can't adequately pay!  And what a great way to earn the loyalty of these top performers. Who's going to leave a company that sent them to a place they always wanted to go because it believed they're deserving enough to be rewarded, and have enough potential to contribute to the company's international CSR push?

Generation Yers say they're interested in companies who get them involved in helping the world. They're drawn to companies with strong CSR programs. So, why not attract and cultivate these young business stars with your own global initiative, even if "global" in your case simply means aiding the struggling parts of your company's home city?  You'd be surprised. Maximizing "good intentions" can be a great help to the world and your organization—even if your intentions weren't all that selfless or "good." 

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