What is the current state of CSR in Canada?
Many global brands don’t activate their social leadership here in Canada because we’re a small market to them, but that needs to change. There is always a bell curve of leadership: Those at the frontier of new thinking, the early adopters, fast followers. Those at the frontier of CSR are continuing to innovate at the edges. They took the principles of CSR more holistically into the business model. Now we call this the social purpose of the company. In so doing, it takes it from something that a CSR manager would do to something that the board and senior leaders do.
CSR is undergoing a transition from a nice-to-do to essential-for-business. Why is that?
We know there are startups and new ventures that have the social venture baked in. For a business that has been trundling along in the old way, they may have the heart in the right place, but they have to reconceptualize how they operate and bring in this emergence. It’s new territory for leaders and boards who have been classically trained in other disciplines not to think this way.
You mentioned a number of companies see CSR as an outdated and irrelevant term. What do you think will become sticky in the next five years and why?
Critics say CSR didn’t fulfill its ambitions. You could look back over 20 years of CSR and say, “What’s different?” The answer is, “not much.” So people are asking, “Is this the right model? Is there another model?” Millennial workers are driving change to more purpose-oriented models. In a recent study of leaders we conducted, people were very blunt and they thought the term CSR as a concept was unsuited to their work—it was larger than that. I call it to a pivot to purpose and now we have to consider, what are the different types of purposes? We are seeing more businesses launching with a societal or humanitarian reason—a higher purpose, a purpose with a capital P, beyond profit for shareholders.
There are new and fast-growth industries including fintech, agtech, and cannabis. How do you think emerging industries can shape a new version of CSR?
I think they can, but they might not. I had a conversation with a cannabis company and, notably, I never heard back, but I said to them, “you have to get a social purpose and scale that way.” I think many of these startups in new industries have the values aligned, but they have to do the work of it. They have to find their purpose. A lot of them are growing so fast, so you’ve got to say to the leaders, “Let’s scale the right thing.” These are medium- to long-term questions they need to incorporate.
Often nonprofits forget they have something of value to offer to corporates. What insights have you seen from partnerships between nonprofits and companies?
The meta-context is that there is a fair amount of distrust of business and now you have to say to civil society organizations: Now you have to trust this business because they have a social purpose. These organizations have not always partnered this way in the past and it’s a new way. For businesses to achieve these new societal goals, they will need partners: businesses, NGOs, universities, nonprofits, and so on. Now they have to sit down and create MOUs at the societal goal level. The business is now bringing all of its assets, not just its philanthropy. They are strategically co-inventing solutions with that company. These organizations are changing their methods: some are co-locating with NGOs for cross-pollination of ideas. Others have their non-profit partner embedded in their operations because these organizations are helping with their societal goals. Other times, the kind of partner they need does not exist, so these businesses have to create their own nonprofit entity.
What advice would you have for nonprofit leaders on improving corporate partnerships?
They have to look for businesses in their region that are already pivoting to purpose. If they’re not going there, it usually doesn’t work. Without a core social purpose, they’re not in it for the long game. They aren’t in it for the root causes. Also, businesses don’t have the skill sets to collaborate with nonprofits, yet. They need to learn more about collaboration, innovation, and systems thinking—something nonprofits can offer.