It seems like the public has a split personality when it comes to big business. People's view of corporations keeps wavering between devil and savior as they look to big business as either the reason for their financial woes or as the solution to their problems.
After a year or more of blaming every one of society's problems on corporate greed, big companies are now being seen as potential champions capable of solving world issues from starving children to protecting the planet.
American Express, General Mills, IBM and New York Life are just a few of the corporations that continue to embrace corporate social responsibility's (CSR) power. For decades, these companies have had strong programs that have helped to build and to maintain public trust. For them CSR, is more than altruism: It is about operating a business that meets or exceeds ethical, legal, commercial and public expectations. CSR is not limited to philanthropy or mobilizing employees to volunteer; it is about a comprehensive set of practices that are integrated throughout the business and rewarded by top management.
In the next few postings I will be sharing my interviews with the leaders of four corporate foundations about their thoughts on CSR. Here is the first one.
Stan Litow, President, IBM International Foundation
Q: Why does CSR matter, and how has it changed from a decade ago?
Stan Litow: Many customers today won't do business with companies that do not demonstrate good corporate social responsibility practices. CSR is an integral part of building a well-respected brand and is critical to IBM's ability to recruit and keep top talent.
A survey from Harvard Business School has shown that people increasingly want to work for companies that are socially conscious. CSR today goes beyond generosity. It is a combination of documented performance in sustainability, strong and progressive labor practices, collaborative community partnerships, fiscal transparency, business ethics and good governance.
Q: Can you share some examples of specific CSR activities within your company?
Stan Litow: At IBM, we use our technology innovation and best people to solve critical global social problems. Our Corporate Service Corps, which we call a corporate version of the Peace Corps, takes 500 of our top emerging leaders each year and assigns them to work in teams in places like Nigeria, Vietnam and Malaysia to help spur job growth and economic development.
We created the World Community Grid to collect all of the unused computer power on individual PCs to create one of the world's most powerful "virtual" supercomputers in the world so that cancer and AIDS researchers could make important breakthroughs. And by using voice recognition technology, we created a free Web-based tool to help teach people to read. Last year it helped more than 200,000 children and adults, and over the next two years, the number will reach 3 million.
Q: What are some ways that your company demonstrates CSR's measurable impact on society?
Stan Litow: In the late 1990s, education reform in this country was deadlocked. Only 11 states had academic standards, and they were far too low. Recognizing that leadership was required, out then CEO, Lou Gerstner and and IBM team brought together by the President of the United States, America's governors and CEOs for the first National Education Summit ever to take place at a private company. It resulted in two more summits and legislation addressing the need for higher national standards, and new ways for states to collaborate. This was a perfect example of business going beyond grant-making and recognizing that business leadership was required for progress to be made on an issue vital to the U.S. economy.
Q: What CSR trends do you think we will see in the coming years?
Stan Litow: Companies are going to find that CSR is an excellent way to build skills in the work force. Today IBM, has 145,00 employees performing community service globally, doing projects where they utilize their special talents. Together, they have donated 10 million hours over the past five years alone. By integrating community service into an employee's work, you can encourage them to do something meaningful, to help communities and to improve the skills of the work force at the same time.