Beyond the Bottom Line: Making CSR Sustainable

What should we be asking ourselves to enable Corporate Social Responsibility funds to tackle complex problems in 21st Century India?


“In a free enterprise, the community is not just another stakeholder, but is, in fact, the very purpose of its existence” — Jamsetji Tata

August 2013 turned out to be harbinger of sorts. With the President’s assent, the Companies Act 2013 came into force, mandating voluntary spirit on part of Indian business, thus giving it a dedicated space in the development ecosystem, and accelerating the shift from foreign aid to corporate resources, as a direct result of India’s economic growth. Estimates say that close to INR 15,000 – 20,000 crore will be contributed towards CSR by Indian business in a given year. But is CSR only about channelizing financial resources towards a noble cause or is there something more to it?

Social challenges tend to be particularly divergent in nature. This is where the challenge lies for CSR: to transcend from stable solutions (as businesses develop for their various functions) to complex ones. Over ten years of working with visionary, and perhaps less visionary, CSR practitioners and funding agencies, from both the perspective of a funder and a development organization, leads me to reflect on some key questions for CSR thought and practice in an Indian context:

  1. Why CSR?

Without answering this question, it is hard for any company to make genuine think about its social responsibility. The road map needs to be clear and consensual as that has implications on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of CSR. Articulating a clear roadmap needs dedicated mind space and time, which brings us to the second challenge.

  1. Is there a fine team?

Is CSR considered (within companies) the team of the last resort, or do we have a group of able people who lead the social initiatives function? It is often seen that CSR becomes an additional responsibility, or ‘once in a week’ kind of work for existing professionals in a company. This might take care of short term gains (for example starting quick projects, or deploying unproductive staff members), but might lead to long term loses. In the absence of a capable team, companies will not realize the full potential of their CSR work.

  1. Is there a theory of change?

A roadmap, to be effective, needs a fair share of strategic, tactical and operational inputs. Broadly it covers the following: WHAT needs to be achieved through CSR, and HOW to go about it. Like business strategy, this needs to take into account assumptions made and risks associated with each action. Once the theory of change is well articulated, it should be able to show the way and achieve outputs and outcomes. This tends to be the Achilles heel for most CSR teams. The development sector (read NGOs, donor agencies) has realized the importance of a theory of change, and could play a role in helping companies articulate their own. A well defined theory also helps demystify the tussle between outputs and outcomes. This further helps in sharpening one’s focus and work towards a desired future state.

  1. What are we measuring?

There’s a famous saying, almost a belief: ‘What can be measured, can be improved’. Applied in the context of work being done by development organizations, measurement (i.e. regular monitoring and evaluation) indeed leads to course correction and improved outputs. But, should we stop at outputs or try to achieve meaningful outcomes (i.e. well being), which might not lend themselves to easy measurability? The journey from a set of outputs to an eventual outcome could be long, frustrating, disbelieving. It’s almost a leap of faith sometimes. But the nature of social change tends to be such that this journey is an important one, especially for those who believe in change.

  1. Do we have ears on the ground?

A theory of change falls flat without the most fundamental constituent: what needs to change? Does the CSR team have enough insight about the challenge which they are addressing? Developing this insight is achieved by being in touch with the reality, and this is where the real capability of a CSR team comes into the picture. At its core this requires understanding social challenges, empathizing with them, visualizing an alternate reality and planning for it.

  1. Are we ready to collaborate?

There has been a saying amongst cooperative movements: vina sahakar nahi uddhar (there’s no upliftment/progress without cooperation), and there’s a lot to learn from this. With collaborations, CSR teams would be much better placed to prepare, learn and launch their ideas. It is important to remember that fruitful collaboration happens when the terms of engagement are equal and respectful. Often, it’s not intuitive and easy to learn new things or question existing ones. But that’s a travail which leads to clarity and intensifies focus.

  1. To spend or to invest?

2% percent of profits across thousands of companies is almost like a sea of financial resources waiting to find channels to flow and enrich geographies. As we know, flowing water can engender prosperity as well as ravage. It’s important to understand the difference between the two, especially in the context of the development sector financing. Funding is not just a strategic imperative but also a critical tool to activate long term impact. A good example is investing in institution and knowledge building, which might take time and resources but will in turn create a memory that the whole sector would benefit from. An aggressive focus on spending could also, on the other hand, give rise to unwanted practices of false reporting and the quick closure of interventions.

  1. Are we game changers?

Steve Jobs once said: ‘innovation distinguishes a leader from a follower’, and personified his words through his work. As the world gets used to quick changes in technology, mobility and aspirations, it is important to be swift and creative in responding to the changing realities. Innovation encompasses not just material aspects of work but also the realm of ideas and practice. CSR policy must be aligned to continuous learning and improvement. An appropriate example here would be that of malnutrition amongst children. If after decades of dedicated effort, the problem continues, should CSR look to do more of the same or try newer approaches to tackle the menace?

  1. Is self regulation a policy?

The CSR ecosystem, in its present form, doesn’t have a robust accountability system. Whatever exists is limited to reporting annual spends, impact numbers achieved and geographical spread of projects. These are seldom verified by field visits or social audits. In the absence of an umpire, will I play a fair game or bend the rules to suit my business.

  1. Are we in it for the long run?

Immediate outputs are achieved easily and communicated promptly, but often leave the target audience yearning for more. Given the nature of certain social issues, addressing them definitively requires time and perseverance. It is easy to plan an annual activity calendar, but achieving the goal would mean fitting these activities into the larger theory of change and drawing linkages from one project cycle to the other. Frequent changes in strategy without investing a justifiable period of time might prove to be counterproductive. A CSR team might not be able to achieve all eventual outcomes within its life span in an organization. Will they still plan for the long run or be content with actions that reap rich short term rewards, because there’s no tomorrow?

These challenges demand a certain level of engagement and a defined strategy to tackle them. They also often require questioning existing notions and being swift and sure in resource allocation – be it human, financial, or in terms of knowledge. Are we ready to reap the rich rewards CSR has to offer? 

This piece is adapted from a longer essay which can be read in full here.


Ashutosh Tosaria

Senior Program Manager, Quest Alliance




Author: thelearnerbyquest

Quest Alliance's space for reflection on the education sector

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