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Can business ‘do good’ in bad times?

By Mariel Q. de Jesus
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:32:00 01/17/2009

Filed Under: Corporate social responsibility

Although a buzzword for business since the 1990s, the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility is quite difficult to pin down and there is no generally accepted definition. Many see CSR as a way for businesses to give back to the community and to contribute to social development goals. One traditional understanding of CSR focuses on compliance with the regulatory framework. However, some businesses are beginning to recognize that they also need to seek the approval of their publics and secure the ?social license to operate.? It has become increasingly clear that businesses do not operate in a vacuum and that they will be held accountable for their impact on the communities they work with, and the environments they work in.

It should not be difficult to talk of ?giving back? when business is thriving. It is easy to ?do good? when business is good. The challenge today is for business to stand by its mandate even during the tough times.

Governments with limited resources are hard-pressed to meet the needs of their constituents. Where public institutions are weak and inefficient, people expect the private sector, and, increasingly, business groups, to bridge the gap. The new breed of socially responsible companies are seeing a new role to play as partners in creating value for society, and as instruments of positive social change. If corporations are serious about being ?good neighbors? and good corporate citizens, now is the time for them to walk their talk and deliver on their promises.

The increasingly media-savvy and aware public is beginning to demand more than just ?business as usual.? Some companies have fortunately found the ?sweet spot,? where business goals intersect with community needs.

Ayala Corp., for instance, acknowledges that the long-term sustainability of its businesses depends largely on the health and success of its communities and stakeholders. It has sought to develop better strategies and greater coherence in its practice of CSR, creating a framework ? called the Ayala Social Initiatives ? that is grounded in the corporate values of commitment to nation building and concern for others.

The Ayala Social Initiatives guides the group in designing and implementing programs that work, programs that are focused and sustainable. Responding to three critical development areas ? education, environment and entrepreneurship ? this framework sets the direction for the group to harness its strengths and resources to empower the youth, enrich our land and enable aspiring micro entrepreneurs.

The Ayala commitment to nation building drives many of its CSR programs, and it is one of the reasons education is high on the agenda of the Ayala Social Initiatives. The group believes that investing in education of the youth will not only give them the skills they need to compete in today?s fast-paced world, but will also empower them to create better futures for themselves and their families. By focusing on the public school system ? where almost 90 percent of Filipino youth are enrolled ? the group seeks to achieve impact where it matters most.

The crisis in education ? poor grasp of basic skills, low scores in achievement tests, and school dropouts ? cannot be solved by one group alone. Today?s new brand of CSR is not about one-upmanship, but about collaborating to respond to today?s most urgent development issues. The Ayala group supports consortium projects that bring like-minded organizations together, bringing a wide range of skills, resources and expertise, in order to come up with solutions that work. Examples of this collaborative spirit are the Gearing up Internet Literacy and Access for Students (GILAS) and Text2Teach consortium projects, which show how technology can boost the public school system. Ayala also supports the 57-75 Consortium, which seeks to reverse the education crisis by emphasizing community involvement and focused interventions.

Many still have apprehensions about what 2009 might bring. We watch and wait, wondering whether the economy will simply bounce back, or whether last year was only the beginning of the downswing. Business groups are wary, and predict a slow start to the year. Some are optimistic, while others are hedging their bets and playing it safe.

While some critique CSR as mere marketing or public relations ploys, some companies have taken CSR to heart, incorporating the principles of CSR into their corporate mission and values, and finding ways to integrate these into their business operations. Some corporations take the long-term view when it comes to CSR. Recognizing that it takes time for investments in social development to bear fruit, these companies bank on the moral bottom line: doing good because it?s the right thing to do.

The financial crisis will test the commitment of business to CSR. But it also presents great opportunities for growth, because it is now, during the tough times, when it matters most for business to learn to adapt, do things differently, do things better. The business community must find ways to respond to the times, and go beyond ?business ? and CSR ? as usual.?

Mariel Q. de Jesus is senior development specialist at Ayala Foundation?s Center for Social Development.

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