Opinions differ about the meaning of corporate social responsibility. Does it mean businesses reaching out to marginalized or underrepresented communities (e.g., women, minorities, persons with disabilities, etc.) and working with them to improve their interactions with the organization? Does it mean initiatives to reduce an organization’s environmental footprint? Does it include actions that are mandated by law or regulation? Is it all of these things? Is it opposed to shareholder value?
One view says this type of thinking about corporate social responsibility is old-fashioned. This view says that while any effort to improve the communities in which organizations operate is worthwhile, true social responsibility is not simply a strategy that organizations can throw on like a flashy accessory. Rather it is like the grain or flower from which the cloth is made: it should be woven into the very fabric of the organization.
For most business owners, I’ve no doubt that is a bit tough to imagine.
“Sure it sounds lovely and all, but I’m barely making ends meet as it is!”
“I don’t have either the time or the money to actively improve my community.”
These are common responses to articles on CSR.
Shared value is a different way of looking at CSR that offers a view to the possibility of inherent social responsibility, and the great potential that it offers to people and their economies. That potential lies in serving un- or underserved communities, of which there are many. For example, services directed at specific ethnic groups and immigrants, or hyper-local businesses that understand and meet their communities’ needs better than faceless franchises.
Bear with this example; it’s a non-profit that relies solely on donations and employs only volunteers, but it is a model that is scalable and certainly offers the potential for profit.
In Toronto, an organization called Not Far from the Tree (NFFTT) harvests fruit from otherwise untended private trees, bushes and vines (with the owners’ permission, of course), and shares the bounty with the property owners, shelters, food banks and among the organization’s volunteers. (Not sure if that counts as pay for tax purposes.)
The Globe and Mail reports:
“City dwellers go far outside city limits and pay to pick apples elsewhere. It’s a novelty to be able to do that within the city,” said Laura Reinsborough, founder of Not Far From The Tree.
More motivating than a nostalgic climb through neighbours’ trees, though, is the opportunity to discover the unexpected urban orchards that dot cityscapes while transforming a problem—rotting fruit most homeowners have no interest in picking—into a solution for hunger and community building.
“The stories we are told so often are about food scarcity and the need to engineer food because we’ll never have enough to feed everybody,” Ms. Reinsborough said. “There is an abundance where, before, we may have just seen a barren city.”
Where’s the potential for profit?
Some similar organizations are turning the urban forest’s bounty into saleable goods, like crabapples into cider, berries into pies, tree fruits into jams and other things. Besides their value to the food banks and shelters, these products and the fresh fruits themselves are increasingly desirable to advocates of local eating, such as followers of “100-mile” diets. Many restaurants seek such products specially because they come from nearby. Even bars and local brewers have taken up the challenge, and look for local ingredients to make their beers, ciders and wines special.
In 2010, Not Far from the Tree collected nearly 20,000 pounds of fruits, but a city like Toronto produces far more untended fruit capacity than that, and the possibility for expansion is great.
Furthermore, an enterprising organization could tend to more than just fallen fruits and sell its services to the city as pest/insect management. Urban harvesters also perform another valuable service to the cities where they operate: by collecting fruit, they discourage rodents and vermin.
As with any enterprise, shared value requires creativity, inventiveness and passion. Shared value requires something more though: the desire to serve and to create value beyond the balance book. But entrepreneurs and business-owners don’t have to forgo profits in their community-building efforts. The point is that by enhancing their communities, by engaging neighbours and even improving their lives, businesses that embrace shared value can profit where others wouldn’t even bother trying. Or a business that shares its value might do better than a “traditional” business offering “traditional” goods or services. And of course, competition won’t hurt.
So, what do you think? Is shared value still just a nice dream? Is it possible for existing businesses to evolve in such a way that they integrate into their communities? Can local business prevail over national or international operations?
First Reference Internal Controls, Human Resources and Compliance Editor