Our Faith in Public Life Officer David Barclay addressed a conference on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at Ridley Hall, Cambridge this week. In this blog, adapted from his remarks, he examines community organising, CSR and the common good…
Over the last few years, I’ve used community organising methodology to influence behaviour in businesses in the financial sector from the outside. What I want to do today is explore what it might look like to reshape a business by using community organising from the inside.
The first element of the community organising is the most important – listening. We always start by listening for two reasons – to identity issues and to find potential leaders who are willing to take action. What’s really going on is a bit deeper – it is the exploration of what we call ‘self-interest’. We define self-interest as ‘that which motivates action’. Self-interest is not the same as selfishness, but neither is it selflessness. It is a complex mixture of beliefs, values, traditions and material concerns.
A business will never do CSR properly unless it understands its organisational self-interest, and it will never understand it’s own self-interest unless it listens to its people. A business’ self-interest is a lot more complicated than simply ‘we want to make money’. Businesses want to be trusted by their customers, they want to have productive and engaged employees, many want to have a social as well as economic impact.
My encouragement to any business thinking about CSR would be to conduct a ‘listening campaign’ involving lots of face-to-face conversations. The best tool we have for understanding self-interest is the question ‘why?’ In every meeting I’m always asking why questions. Why did you become a Vicar? Why are you a member of this organisation? Why do you volunteer at the night shelter? A listening campaign will give you a strong feel for what kind of community engagement is going to fire people up within the organisation. If you want to really unleash the potential of your organisation to contribute to the common good then people will have to feel that it’s in their self-interest – that it connects with their story or their passions in some way.Once we’ve done our listening the next step is research. Once you’ve worked out your organisational self-interest, you should have some idea of the kind of partners you’d like to develop relationships with. Your research is the process of getting into relationship with those potential partners, understanding their needs, their self-interest, and trying to identify points of overlap. Of course one likely need that you will find when you do this is for funding, and that’s fine. But any partner worth working with should be looking for more than just your cash, and you should have more than just cash to offer.
That’s where the next bit of the community organising cycle comes in, which is action. We are always looking for opportunities to take public action. Part of our purpose in community organising is to revitalise public life by promoting active citizenship, and to build relationships within and between different groups – there is nothing like common action to do that. So if part of your purpose with CSR is to help your employees develop their own sense of citizenship, and to build better relationships within the organisation, you have to look for opportunities for them to take part in CSR action.
The final key community organising tool is leadership development. We have what we call the ‘iron rule’, which says ‘you should never do for someone what they can do for themselves’. So when we’re listening to churches, we get the church members actively involved in every step of the process. That’s what a good CSR person should look like – always developing others in the company to take responsibility for CSR activities and decisions. That’s a good principle for CSR partnerships as well, to never do for charities or local organisations what they can do for themselves.
What people often react against in CSR is a very ‘transactional’ reciprocity, where the charity doesn’t really care about the business but just wants their money, and the business doesn’t really care about the charity but just wants a nice PR opportunity. It can be tempting in the face of that to say that a Christian response should be to reject reciprocity, and aim for some kind of purely selfless giving on the part of the business which seeks no return. But that’s misguided, both practically and theologically. Instead we need to press into deep, relational reciprocity which involves both giving more of ourselves and expecting more from others in return.
Let me give you an example. My Church runs the Spear Course which helps 18-24 year olds who are not in education or employment to get into work. A recruitment company in the City called Interim Partners got interested, and initially came along and helped with some mock interviews. The relationship developed, and soon Interim Partners were also contributing financially to the costs of running the course. Then something really interesting happened – Interim Partners had a vacancy going, and realised that one of the young people on the Spear course would be perfect for it, so they gave them work experience and ended up hiring them. Was this a selfish abuse of a CSR relationship for their own ends? Absolutely not! It was in fact a stunning endorsement of the programme and the young people, and a huge boost to the relationship.
CSR can be more than just a nice add-on to a business. It can catalyse a conversation about the core identity and practices of a business and orient them towards the common good. Whether your organisation is small or large, whether you do a lot of CSR or none at all, the tools of community organising can spark ideas for how you might understand your own organisational self-interest, work out possible overlaps with community stakeholders and pursue the common good.