One thing the corporate world absolutely has going for it is that at the end of the day, everyone in that world knows where their bottom line is.
The bottom line is profit.
Everything else is ultimately subservient to profit. Every pet project. Every initiative. Every innovation. They all fit into a larger profit calculation, and so when those pet projects or those innovative initiatives don’t bear fruit in the form of profit, they get cut. And if those running the show don’t have the good sense to cut those projects which cost the company money, as opposed to generating more of it, raw Darwinism eventually takes over. The bottom line is profit. Cross it and you’re out of business.
Sure, there is messed-up-ness in the corporate world, too. It’s not all a well-oiled profit-making machine. There’s boondoggle and graft and messed up priorities just like in any other sector. But I can guarantee you that whether we’re talking about one individual making a profit while running her or his company into the ground, or a sector within the corporate world raking in the cash while running the economy of an entire nation into the ground, the notion of profit reigns supreme. In the corporate world, regardless of whatever else might be in the mix – motivations, beliefs, distractions, investment, innovations, R&D, vision – the comes a point at which the bills have to be paid and the shareholders have to be paid out. The bottom line is profit.
And this all applies to Corporate Social Responsibility, too. CSR exists precisely because it’s profitable. It is important to be clear on this point: the bottom-line enhancing qualities of CSR are not an afterthought or serendipity or by-products. On the contrary, they’re the entire point. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about Philip Morris funding cancer research, Proctor & Gamble making PUR water purification sachets available, TOMS Shoes giving away shoes and glasses and calling it “aid”, or a world of shade and color and nuance and variation among all of those, CSR is about that bottom line, profit. I think we can all very safely assume that Corporate Social Responsibility investments would stop existing tomorrow if they weren’t profitable.
I’m not saying this is either good or bad. It just is.
What it means for humanitarians, though, is that we come to the CSR conversation with a very distinct disadvantage: we don’t have a bottom line. At least not one that is as clear and tangible as profit, and certainly not one that is universally acknowledged in the humanitarian world. We have some generalized notions about humanitarian ethics in the broader context, and some vague, squishy ideas about what’s good and bad, right and wrong when it comes to “partnering” with corporations. But we don’t have a humanitarian equivalent to “profit” in the corporate world. We don’t have a universal, grounding principle against which every initiative, opportunity, or “potential for collaboration with the corporate sector” can be held up against to show us clearly, “yes, this is legitimate humanitarian relief or development, this is acceptable”, or, “no, we need to leave this one on the table.”
The humanitarian world lacks a clear line beyond which negotiations with a donor, any donor, corporate or other, are terminated categorically on the basis of principle. This is a line that we desperately need to draw, and draw soon. We need to figure out what we’ll do and what we won’t. And not in the 35,000 ft. “We shall respect culture and custom” sense, but in the sea-level, “to what extent can we ethically enable market penetration of [PRODUCT X by CORPORATION A] in communities where we work in the name of ‘relief’ or ‘development'” sense. Corporate Social Responsibility is not going away, and we have a responsibility to inject values and parameters other than profit into the calculus.
We have to draw the line.