Can and should companies be in the business of doing good? This long-running debate was graced earlier this year by a new contribution from Michael Porter, one of the world’s leading management gurus, and his sometime sidekick, philanthropy consultant Mark Kramer. In a headline article in the Harvard Business Review they both took a swipe at traditional corporate social responsibility and proposed a new framework, which they called ‘shared value’. Get the do-gooding out of your PR departments and corporate foundations, they cried, and instead mobilise the whole of your business to find the win-win where what is good for society is also good for the bottom line.
This offering was greeted with enthusiasm in some quarters, such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, yet also encountered some scepticism, both on the grounds that the idea is not particularly novel and that it may not mean anything. So it was with interest that we read a feature in the current edition of the always excellent Stanford Social Innovation Review in which Mr Kramer engaged in what was billed as a “candid” discussion of shared value with the representatives of ten major global corporations.
Do businesses recognise shared value as the next big idea? Well, the corporate folk gathered by Mr Kramer seemed to be lapping it up. Executives from a diverse range of businesses from money transfer giant Western Union to IT powerhouse Cisco happily described how their do-gooding slotted into the shared value worldview. And why not? It’s always nice to be part of the newest big idea.
Yet amid this love-in for shared value there was one jarring note. “I’m probably the only person at the table who’s not part of a corporate affairs organization or a foundation”, observed Beth Schmitt, the director of recycling for North America at metals behemoth Alcoa. Well spotted. That shared value, which is supposed to be at the heart of the business and at odds with traditional CSR, was being celebrated largely by CSR and PR people rather than core business executives strikes us as somewhat contradictory.
This matters because tough questions do need to be asked about the role of business in society. Take the iconic mega-bank Goldman Sachs, for example, which hosted the roundtable discussion and showcased its 10,000 women project and 10,000 businesses initiative (for which Mr Porter co-chairs the advisory board, alongside Warren Buffett ad Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein) at the meeting. These are, in our view, good examples of smart, high-leverage corporate philanthropy. Yet, as we argued recently, such projects remain at the margin of Goldman’s business and do nothing to address bigger questions about whether Goldman’s core activity is actually socially useful.
Was the selection of participants at the roundtable actually a tacit admission that even those firms which most fervently champion shared value are really not doing much that wouldn’t qualify as traditional CSR?
“The vast majority of acivity in this area [CSR] is seen as separate from the business,” Mr Porter told a meeting of the Committee for Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy last year, as he mused on why so much corporate giving achieves so little impact: “I firmly believe that now we have to raise the bar”. We agree. But if shared value is going to be about anything more than the status quo, there need to be different people at the table.