Two events this fall bear witness to the growing importance of corporate social responsibility, or CSR, in business strategies. Studies show that formal CSR programs are on the rise, accompanied by the creation of lead CSR roles — as in the case of NBCUniversal, which last year created the position of senior vice president for corporate social responsibility.
“Our combined company’s unique platform for entertainment, information and communications … drives us to create additional value in the neighborhoods we serve. We are exploring new ways to enhance our investments in the communities where we do business, while minimizing our impact on the environment. Comcast has long believed in doing business in a socially responsible manner, and now we are poised to do so on an even greater scale,” Brian L. Roberts, chairman and CEO Comcast Corp., which acquired NBCUniversal from General Electric Co. last year, writes in the company’s newly released “2011 Corporate Social Responsibility Report.
While more businesses are establishing formal CSR programs, the budgets dedicated to these programs tend to lag other formal programs, according to a recent survey by Corporate Responsibility Magazine. The issue no doubt will be on the minds of CSR leaders gathering in Washington, D.C., and Boston this October.
From Oct. 10 to 12, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center hosts “CSR: Business Solutions for Emerging Markets Global Conference,” a three-day conference in Washington for business, nonprofit and government leaders. The conference covers such topics as the business case for global development, unlocking the global value chain, creating the infrastructure for development, business solutions for the middle of the pyramid, business solutions to youth underemployment and the corporate intrapreneur: social enterprise and corporate citizenship. The goal is to help to advance an evolving trend in which companies see global development as an engagement that creates a foundation for healthy local economies where businesses can grow, create jobs and improve livelihoods.
“Issues such as literacy, nutrition, water quality, gender equality, youth employment, disease and pollution are not just social challenges, they profoundly affect the business value chain,” says Taryn Bird, the center’s global program senior manager.
About a week later, from Oct. 17 to Oct. 20, Harvard Business School rolls out an executive education program, Corporate Social Responsibility: Strategies to Create Business and Social Value, to “address the challenge of balancing business objectives and social accountability.” Program organizers say corporate executives increasingly must find new ways to address the social, economic and environmental effects of doing business while balancing conflicting demands on their attention, time and resources. Designed for senior executives who direct CSR programs, or who oversee such areas as public affairs, philanthropy, sustainability, environmental health and safety or community affairs, the $6,900 course will teach participants to fully incorporate social responsibility in ways that benefit both society and their business.
“Executives in the program will learn to create competitive advantage through CSR by aligning corporate social responsibility strategies with organizational goals and capabilities,” says chair Kash Rangan, Malcolm P. McNair Professor of Marketing and faculty chair of the course. “Corporate social responsibility focuses on teaching skills to help take participants’ strategy and management capabilities to the next level, such as fostering successful interaction with key stakeholder groups and learning to represent the business case for CSR initiatives.”
In its second annual (2011) survey of corporate responsibility professionals, Corporate Responsibility Magazine found that 72 percent of all companies have formal CSR, or CR, programs, up from 62 percent in 2010 and 60 percent have dedicated CSR budgets, up from 52 percent in 2010. At the same time, the gap between those that have a formal program but no budget remained unchanged at 20 percent. “Work remains to be done. Medium-sized companies seem stalled in their CR adoption rates. A gap persists between companies’ desire and implementation abilities,” Richard J. Crespin, executive director of the Corporate Responsibility Officers Association, wrote in the introduction to the survey report. The association, along with NYSE Euronext, joined CR Magazine on the report.
The magazine sent surveys to every firm traded on the New York Stock Exchange and to its own database. Of the 300 respondents, 8 percent had more than $50 billion in annual global revenues, 21 percent had revenues of $11 billion to $50 billion, 15 percent had revenues of $6 billion to $10 billion and 29 percent had revenues of $1 billion to $5 billion. The remainder had revenues from less than $50 million to $999 million.
At NBCUniversal, the portfolio of Beth Colleton, the new senior vice president for CSR focuses on environmental sustainability, diversity, philanthropy and pro-social initiatives. In 2011, NBCUniversal and Comcast together contributed more than $435 million in cash and in-kind services to charitable organizations nationwide, including United Way, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and City Year. Their CSR report details these activities: “To help close the digital divide, we launched our Internet Essentials program, which provides affordable broadband access to low-income families. We highlighted our commitment to acting environmentally responsible through a focused purchasing program that makes us the owner of the nation’s tenth-largest hybrid vehicle fleet, and by offering more than 300 hours of programming on environmental topics as part of our Green is Universal initiative. In addition, our more than 50 on-air, online, and mobile platforms mobilized their audiences to actively engage in critical social discussions on topics ranging from improving education to protecting the environment to celebrating diversity.”
The Internet Essentials program is especially dear to Charisse R. Lillie, Comcast’s vice president of community investment, who notes in the CSR report that nearly a third of Americans are “on the wrong side of the digital divide,” with limited, if any, computer literacy skills and no access to broadband at home. Many also do not have a computer at home. “We took this information gap into account as we developed Internet Essentials and included a substantial digital education component that gives Internet Essentials customers access to online, print and in-person training opportunities,” says Lillie, an attorney by training.
In its first year, the program connected more than 91,000 families, some 364,000 low-income Americans, to the Internet in their homes, distributed more than 11,500 computers and provided more than 400 in-person training sessions around the country. “We’ve reviewed study after study, and this research consistently found that the barriers to broadband adoption involve limited digital literacy skills, a perceived lack of relevance of online content, and a real need for inexpensive, quality computers and Internet service,” Lillie says. “Internet Essentials was designed to address all of these hurdles.
The Comcast/NBCUniversal CSR report includes the first annual “Diversity & Inclusion Progress Report,” highlighting innovative programming and distribution opportunities, new opportunities for diverse suppliers and employees, and content of particular relevance to African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans. The annual D&I reports likely will be closely followed by minority media advocates, who had argued that the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger essentially would cannibalize diversity in the industry. At the time, for example, the National Coalition of African American Owned Media noted in a full-page ad in The Washington Post that “Comcast Cable allocated none of its channel capacity, nor any of its $8 billion programming budget, to networks that are African American wholly owned and widely distributed to their nearly 23 million subscribers.”
Comcast subsequently unveiled plans to distribute four new minority-owned and/or operated independent networks on Comcast Cable systems, launching between May 2012 and January 2014. It said they are the first of 10 independent channels it will launch over the next eight years to expand its ethnic and independent programming.