Corporate social responsibility: Biceps versus toupee

Michael Porter is a man of big ideas. His latest is particularly intriguing. It’s the idea that companies can move beyond corporate social responsibility — often perceived as do-gooder revenue drain or window-dressing, depending on where you stand — to something that puts solving public problems on the same platform with other revenue-generating parts of the business. He calls it “shared value.” Cheesy name, great pragmatic approach.

This makes creating social good part of core business practice — muscle — rather than an add-on like a toupee. Anyone who’s worked in CSR can attest to that stapled-on feeling at times. It seems like a more integral approach could benefit companies at all scales. Might be an interesting question for a nonprofit board to chew on, too, as a way to reverse-engineer the answer and perhaps identify potential partners.

From the business end, I’d start with two basic questions: What social problems could we address using our core business? And how can we make the answers to Question One generate revenue?

From the nonprofit end, I’d ask what aspect of the nonprofit is investment-worthy, what might become a revenue generator for a partner or for the nonprofit itself. More of a traditional CSR approach, yes, but chances are the question has been approached the charity hat on — as in, “they should partner with us because we’re worthy.” Perhaps asking anew might generate fresh thinking.

If you want to ponder this more, check out the piece in The New York Times business section from Sunday, August 13, 2011.