CSR strategy and strategic CSR

There is a new entry in the Paper P1 study guide from June 2015 in section E2d. It reads as follows: Explain and evaluate the concepts of ‘CSR strategy’ and ‘strategic CSR’.

In this article, a number of themes in corporate social responsibility (CSR) are discussed. Corporate social responsibility can be a controversial subject in some countries and in some cultural contexts. It seems that there is a range of views on the extent to which business organisations should be socially responsible as well as economically successful, and these are reflected in such frameworks as the Gray, Owen & Adams continuum (Paper P1 Study Guide entry E2a).

What is CSR?

The idea that businesses have a role in society as well as in making money for shareholders is not a new one. Although a business organisation primarily exists to make a return for its investors, a number of other purposes might also apply. It might want, for example, to be a good employer, to behave responsibly, to deal fairly with suppliers and customers, etc. In some cases, in addition to all of these, some believe that businesses have a wider responsibility to society in general. They may believe that because businesses benefit from the support of society, they, in turn, have a responsibility to contribute to the welfare of society.

Accordingly, some businesses adopt a range of measures that are designed to benefit society more widely than existing just for the maximisation of shareholder value, important though that is. CSR initiatives generally include a range of community initiatives, including donating money to charities, helping non-governmental organisations, perhaps with the donation of staff time or excess inventory, providing staff expertise to local good causes, allowing a range of stakeholders to have input into key strategic decisions, social and environmental impact management and similar other initiatives.

It is thought that CSR can have an important role in how a business is positioned in its environment. Just as a number of strategic analysis tools (such as Michael Porter’s five forces framework) can describe how a company is strategically positioned, the ethical reputation that a business has is also thought to be important in its overall strategic positioning. So society’s view of a company, and hence its willingness to engage with the company, is partly dependent upon its ethical reputation over many years. CSR measures are thought to be one important way of influencing this.

What is CSR strategy?

A strategy, in the usual meaning of the term, implies something that is planned, preconceived and deliberate. So a CSR strategy, just like another other strategy (like a marketing strategy, perhaps) is a series of deliberate stages intended to achieve a particular outcome or strategic end. In contrast, a company that does not have a CSR strategy might appoint someone to achieve CSR outcomes as part of their job but then provide no overall framework or guidance for the CSR investment. CSR, in such a situation, would not be planned at all, but just ‘done’ by someone, perhaps on the basis of solicitations of the jobholder’s own views of which causes are the most deserving.

So to have a CSR strategy involves making choices. It might be decided, for example, to pursue some CSR activities but not others and to support some causes but not others. Once these decisions have been made, the person or people responsible for implementing CSR strategy will have a basis for CSR decisions. This is a CSR strategy.

One reason why companies might have a CSR strategy in place is to ensure that CSR is not undertaken based on the personal views of the CSR person or department, or on the basis of any persuasive causes who convince the company to support their particular viewpoint. Given that CSR usually costs the company money, many companies feel that they need to in some way reflect the values and beliefs of the company’s owners, the shareholders, in CSR matters. This brings us onto the subject of strategic CSR.

What is strategic CSR?

‘Strategic’ is a term used to signify a certain motive. For a business, something that is strategic is concerned with the long-term success of the business and its strategic positioning with regard to a range of environmental variables. So in strategy, people might talk about strategically important customers, suppliers, employees, networks, culture, etc. In each case, such things are referred to as ‘strategic’ because they can affect the long-term success of the business and the quality of the business’s strategic ‘fit’ into its environment.

When we refer to strategic CSR, we use the term ‘strategic’ in precisely the same way as those referred to above. CSR measures can be configured so as to produce benefits for the company as well as for those causes supported in the community. This means that the types of causes supported or community groups helped will be chosen carefully so that the CSR initiatives support the strategic objectives of the business. The belief underpinning strategic CSR is that all of the money in a business belongs to the shareholders and so any expenditure should serve their (the shareholders’) strategic interests. To spend any money carelessly (including CSR investment) would be affectively a type of theft from shareholders. So CSR that did not support the company’s strategy would be an irresponsible use of shareholders’ funds.

So what does strategic CSR look like? One well-known medical supplies company, for example, is known to use a lot of its CSR budget on supporting nurses and doctors in their training and research. Why might this be? Because it will be nurses and doctors who, once qualified and in senior positions, will be able to select suppliers for their hospitals and other health facilities they work in. If they have benefitted from the company’s funding as trainees, they may be well-disposed to the company for all of their working lives.

Another company, a bank, uses some of its CSR budget to help to educate young adults in ‘financial literacy’. Why might this be strategic? Because adults who are financially literate will usually go into unplanned debt less frequently and will realise their need for a range of financial products, many of which will be provided by the bank. So by supporting initiatives to increase financial literacy, the bank might be indirectly reducing bad debts and also increasing demand for its own products.

A very common way of using CSR strategically is to involve the employees in their choices of how to support charities and communities. The thinking behind this is to increase the support and loyalty of employees by asking them to suggest and support initiatives that the company might support. If the company supports causes that are important to employees, the effect may be to encourage the loyalty and participation of employees and this, in turn, can increase the productivity of the workforce.

Likewise, a local business might increase its reputation locally by taking part in community initiatives such as helping with a local school or college, providing flower beds in a local park, giving a set of shirts to a local sports team (perhaps with the company name on them), etc. In many countries, if the recipient of the CSR is a charity, the donation can be made with tax relief. This means that the recipient can receive the value of the donation plus the marginal rate of tax that the company would pay on that amount if it was posted as profit. In such a case, a company carefully planning its CSR can gain tax efficiencies on its CSR strategy (see later).

Should CSR be strategic?

The question about whether CSR should be strategic is an ethical question. Supporters of the pristine capitalist perspective are likely to believe that all of a company’s value should be used explicitly for the benefit of shareholders in which case any CSR should be strategic. At the other end of the continuum, it is likely that deep greens would believe that businesses benefit from society and communities and so should contribute back to them wherever possible.

The ethical argument against strategic CSR is that businesses rely upon the support of communities to work for them, buy from them and allow them to operate normally. Businesses also use resources supplied by the state and communities in the normal progress of their operations. Because of this support from society and communities, businesses should willingly and ungrudgingly pay some of that back through CSR initiatives. Companies that manufacture goods, for example, transport their goods to market on roads paid for by taxpayers whilst employees arrive at the workplace on railways subsidised by taxpayers. So no business is ‘an island’ that excuses it from the obligation to pay back to society.

For those who believe that CSR should be strategic, there are a number of arguments that may be deployed in favour. The first is that, according to the pristine capitalist end of the continuum, company directors, controlling resources, have a legal and ethical duty to take actions that reflect the strategic wishes on shareholders. Because most shareholders seek value maximisation over time, the directors must always seek to serve the shareholders’ interests. In this case, because the resources employed in CSR belong to shareholders (because all of a company’s value belongs to the shareholders), CSR must always be in the strategic interests of shareholder value. Second, it is likely that CSR used for strategic interests will be the most efficient way to use those resources. CSR, which is not strategic, can be wasted or misdirected, perhaps at the whim of the person disbursing the funds or planning the activities. When CSR is strategic, it is more likely to be better planned and more effectively configured and co-ordinated with other business operations. Better targeted, CSR is likely to be more effective and efficient than ‘ad hoc’ or unplanned CSR.

Third, strategic CSR is more likely to enjoy the ‘buy in’ and support of those involved in implementing it. Enjoying the support of employees, for example, is usually considered important in CSR and many employees will support CSR initiatives when they can see a business benefit to them. This is more likely when they can see CSR initiatives supporting their other activities such as sales, operations and marketing. CSR can be synergistic with other activities and the support of employees can be vital in this, so that CSR supports the core business and vice versa. Fourth, as alluded to earlier, when CSR involves giving or engaging with registered charities, the company can gain tax advantages from that giving. This advantage is not for the company itself but the charity can reclaim the tax already paid on the amount. So if the prevailing rate of tax is, say, 40% on company profits, then the value of the giving is worth 140% of what is actually given (or the company can pay before tax and treat is as a tax exempt expense). This means that if CSR is strategic, the company can gain more that the value of the giving and therefore gain tax benefits from what is essentially an initiative intended to support the company’s strategy.

In conclusion, then, businesses engaging in CSR may or may not have a CSR strategy. If there is no CSR strategy, there will be no policies or principles in place for CSR and the responsibilities may be allocated to an individual or team below board level. If a strategy is in place, policies will be in place to guide and more effectively direct CSR efforts. If CSR is strategic, however, it means that CSR will be used to support the long-term economic interests of the business.

Written by a member of the Paper P1 examining team