Working for Pegasus Strategic Communications, I supported the creation of a corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy for ING Investment Bank Middle East. The strategy was their first for this region, from their office in Dubai.

With my colleagues, we created a strategy that was aligned with ING’s global CSR strategy and locally relevant. Building from previous fundraising efforts to support a local school and foundation for children with special needs, we provided several options of policies they could implement and local initiatives they could support in long-term relationships, including a mobile book bus spreading literacy and a love for reading in cities and rural areas, and potential programs for financial literacy building on ING’s core competencies. We wanted to help ING engage with and support the community with more than just donations, so recommendations included a comprehensive CSR audit to look for opportunities in business products and operations as well as staff engagement and community outreach.

Top 3 Lessons Learned

About CSR in general:

1.  CSR in Dubai seems mostly focused on writing checks and little more, but donations, while beneficial, often hardly scratch the surface to solve real issues and provide lasting value to its community. While philanthropy is helpful to society, corporate responsibility has such a higher ceiling of potential. And with companies and the private sector being the dominant force in today’s modern world, stronger and more influential than government and non-profit sectors, there is so much more that can be done, and can benefit companies and society at the same time.

Companies can have much larger impact, first, if they are able to incorporate addressing social and civic issues into its core products, services or offerings—first ensuring they do no harm over the course of their usual business, and adding additional social value while they do business. When engaging staff to donate their time, efforts or pro-bono services, it is important to allow and help them connect with causes they are really excited to engage in and help improve their communities. The more they can use their specialized knowledge, talents and expertise, the more impact they can have, as opposed to volunteering only for tasks that any person could do. And they should be encouraged and enabled by the company to stay engaged throughout the year and on the long term. Companies also can make in-kind donations, share their space or resources, engage in partnerships and do so many things to multiply and maximize their impact beyond just writing checks.

It’s this understanding and mentality that so much more can be done, and needs to be done to have real impact, that needs to become mainstream for CSR programs to be more than positive marketing and tiny drops in a bucket.

2.  Long-term commitment and focus allow a company and community to build success upon success, make more and stronger relationships and increase their impact and benefit year after year. The forms of support and programs can change frequently, while goals for impact, value and achievement remain constant, multiplying community benefits and company returns. By contrast, scattering support to several different recipients and shifting to another each time can only provide limited impact for each one, and not for very long.

Companies often choose a scattered approach, probably because it feels like they are able to help more people and causes, and appeal to all of their employees’ and stakeholders’ charitable preferences. But in truth, it is a watered-down approach. We can show them how they can do much more good by being more focused.

3.  CSR is often made a responsibility of the marketing department. This is inherently flawed in several ways. First, it is too easy to exaggerate impact through marketing way beyond what is actually achieved. Companies doing this contribute to CSR remaining largely superficial, reduce its credibility and sabotage conviction by other companies to actually have a positive impact within society. Second, it encourages CSR to remain an outside function—one that is not intertwined throughout the whole company, in its core values and throughout all of its operations. Third, it makes CSR easily expendable—when profits get tight or when management changes, it can be easily justified as the first thing to cut away. If a company is serious about being a socially responsible business, it can’t keep CSR on its surface; it has to adopt it throughout as a permanent value. There are always ways to keep being responsible and providing value, even when finances are tight.

Bonus lessons:

4.  Businesses are required by definition to make profit the highest priority. Especially publicly owned companies. And that needs to be accepted as fact. Many companies would not be able to justify putting social responsibility or community benefit ahead of profits if they ever conflicted. And so CSR suggestions have to know that and work with it. Whatever can be done should be done to imagine and implement CSR initiatives that help or align with profitability, for those will be the ones with the best chance of sticking even if times get tough. Anything else can be great while a company is willing, and should certainly be proposed while times are good, but the more it is based on goodwill but not good business, the less likely it is to last.

5.  I believe that there are always ways to be more socially responsible: reduce social, environmental, health-related or exploitative harms done by products, operations or supply chains; improve efficiencies; adopt community, regional or global issues especially aligned with the brand and the company’s core competencies, and give whatever time, resources or donations are possible at the time, with regularity even if quantity fluxuates.