Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Irony of Scale in Corporate Social Responsibility

For three years prior to enrolling in a Master’s program in Interaction Design at Carnegie Mellon, I worked as a program manager for a social enterprise consultancy in Bangalore, India. In this role, I supported a large Corporate Social Responsibility initiative that awarded consulting services to small nonprofit organizations looking to scale their impact and identify opportunity for revenue generation. These organizations were working on the ground in some of the toughest parts of India, solving some of the country’s most pressing challenges - sanitation, education, food. Many were, rightly so, based in rural villages, where “70 percent of India’s population lives.” (Chaudhri and Kaul, 4). And, while these organizations were undoubtedly succeeding at building shared value, they unfortunately were not doing so at any real scale.

Ironically, the only stakeholder in this relationship with any power to work at the scale needed (one of India’s largest fast-moving consumer goods companies) was simply fulfilling a quota for “social responsibility rather than incorporating shared value as a core component of its operating model (Kramer, 4). While I laud the considered effort involved in an initiative that does more than throw money at unprepared organizations, I always found myself wondering what impact the company could have made in achieving its CSR mission had they directed their resources towards “reconceiving products and markets, redefining productivity in the value chain, and building supportive industry clusters at the company’s locations” (Kramer, 7)? While I was, in many ways, proud of the work I was doing as part of this initiative, I questioned some of the underlying assumptions embedded within the consulting-based model of which I was a part.

Strangely enough, this is what brought me to design school - to question the assumptions and dissect the operating models that have created a situation in which those most able to create impact at scale see it as an issue divorced from their primary business objectives. Kramer’s sentiment, that “businesses must reconnect company success with social progress” reverberates throughout my entire being, and I am eager to help design businesses that see this intrinsic link (Kramer, 4). I don’t want to be stuck at the wrong end of an interesting challenge anymore - where the problem has been framed, the solutions have been designed and all that’s needed (or asked for) is a bit sprucing up around the edges. I want to be in the thick of it, asking hard questions and challenging assumptions - about the role of business, about its impact on community, about the ways in which value can be shared. I don’t believe that business is a zero sum game, and I hope to one day be in a role where I can reframe the challenge of social responsibility so that public and private organizations no longer see “the other [as] an obstacle to pursuing its goals” but rather understand that there is enough value to go around.

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