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COVID-19 will redefine the purpose of corporate social responsibility

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Deirdre Garvey

CEO, The Wheel

The Government’s national plan on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Towards Responsible Business 2017-2020, sets out a vision that Ireland will be recognised as ‘a centre of excellence for responsible and sustainable business practice’.

It is fair to say that the plan, which is now in its third and final year, has succeeded in raising the profile of CSR in Ireland. It would also be reasonable to posit that, by the time the plan concludes, the nature of CSR in Ireland may be forever changed, but perhaps not for the reasons anyone had anticipated. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has cut a swathe of destruction through every sector of Irish society. The economic cost will be immense, but the human cost is incalculable. Amid all the suffering and anxiety, business, the public sector and civil society have rallied, and a new spirit of solidarity and collaboration has taken hold.

Charities are working in partnership with Government and local authorities on initiatives like COVID-19 Community Outreach, a community support programme coordinated by The Wheel and Irish Rural Link with funding from the Department of Rural and Community Development. Meanwhile, the corporate sector, SMEs and financial service sectors are rowing in to support government and civil society initiatives designed to lessen the social impact of the crisis.

The public sector and civil society have rallied, and a new spirit of solidarity and collaboration has taken hold.

The role of CSR going forward

As the grip of the lockdown eases and a sense of normality returns to our lives, the full social and economic cost of the global crisis is becoming apparent. It is now abundantly clear that there will be no ‘business as usual’ for the foreseeable future.

Tectonic shifts are taking place, which will force us to rethink many aspects of our economy, not least the relationship between businesses and the communities on which they depend. Suddenly, all this talk about CSR is coming into clear focus.

Employee engagement has become the mantra of CSR in recent years, and initiatives like staff volunteering days, skills-based volunteering and volunteering credit schemes have become staples. Corporate blogs are littered with pictures of employees planting community gardens and painting murals, which has its place, but it should not be the sum of CSR.

Cross-sectorial partnership is essential

Meaningful CSR is not based on patronage or mentorship, it is based on partnership. Partnership with communities, and partnership with the organisations that support and represent them. And, fortunately, we are seeing more and more of these partnerships.

Ireland’s community, voluntary and charity sector is a wellspring of knowledge and expertise. Around 184,000 people are employed in the sector and it generates a combined annual turnover of €14.5bn. These organisations are embedded in communities, and they have decades of experience in addressing some of the most complex issues we face as a society.

To maximise their positive impact on society, companies must develop partnerships with community and voluntary organisations focused on sustained impact over time. These holistic strategies should be informed, not only by a company’s values, but also the evolving needs of communities.

Many local and international companies have stepped up as good corporate citizens by working closely with civil society organisations to ensure that their contributions have a positive impact where it is most needed. 

In the long-term, these strategies will create shared value for both companies and society, but in the current circumstances, social need must be prioritised, and companies should be content to give more than they get. In future, these impact-focused CSR programmes will stand in stark contrast to those that are focused solely on creating value for brands and their shareholders.

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