CSR redefined…

Posted: March 14, 2011 in CSR

I’ve been called a cynic and a pessimist so very often that I’ve started to take it as a compliment. Maybe, the 24 years I spent in the hotel and media industries, respectively, made me realise how people could so easily fake friendliness. It feels good when a well-known film star puts his arm around you, like you’re his best friend, when in reality all he wants is for you to give him and his mistress a room to hide in. Or a guy who wants to give you a gas connection only because you’re from the Press and he can, some time or the other, come to you for help.

But today as I heard a bunch of students tell me about their experiences at some of the corporate houses while working on what they believe is a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) project, I said to myself, I’m not the only cynic around! Most companies would have us believe that when they undertake CSR projects, they do so with the intention of giving something back to the underprivileged in society. But listening to some students talk about their CSR projects with well known corporate houses was an eye-opener.

Of course there were some kids who actually believed that what the company was doing is a good thing and I am happy about that. They told me of companies that genuinely helped the poorer sections of society. But there were others who were trying to convince themselves and me of the same, and were not doing a very good job of it. And there was this last category who knew that this was a lot of hogwash. It’s this category that surprised me. And their average age is 19.

I listened with interest as one kid spoke about her time at India’s largest corporate house that has a finger in every pie and is making quite a hash of it. Clearly disillusioned, she told me how the company would not spare 20k to treat a bunch of homeless kids to a special lunch, because that money had to be spent on buying caviar! Hey, what’s a bunch of homeless kids for these bigwigs when there’s champagne and caviar on the anvil! Another student told me about the time she was trying to get a special lunch organised for some street kids and asked the hotel chain where she was doing her project to permit a chef to do the needful. But not a single chef accepted the offer and it was only after a warning that one of them did and complained about it the whole time.

One of them told me about how he would invite four managers of this company where he interned to be a part of some event, and they would invariably refuse stating time constraints. Yet every day for at least two hours during the lunch break they had time to play Nintendo on their computers in the game room! Managers looking after CSR projects would first check on what their corporate rivals were doing in the area before deciding their next plan of action. Even the poor were not spared the internecine office politics that has today become a part and parcel of corporate life.

Another bright kid told me that managers at many of the corporate houses brazenly stated that the whole CSR experience was just an attempt to save income tax – responsibility to the less fortunate always comes a distant second. If the first can be achieved easily, then the second is quite simply an exercise in offloading cash and conscience.

Like this big Delhi corporate house whose idea of CSR was to organise an occasional lunch for homeless kids who slept outside his multiplex – kids who were already hooked on booze, glue and coke at the age of 12 or 13. Or worse, organising some silly Christmas party for them where some idiot in a silly Santa Claus outfit gave them even sillier gifts. Wouldn’t it have been better if he could send these kids into rehab and ensure they came out clean and stayed that way, by giving them a job and a home? But then this is a section of corporate India’s idea of social responsibility – give a little money and get rid of a whole lot of guilt conscience. Once that was done, they could reach for the champagne and caviar. Cheers!

  1. Isn’t it always like this? If something is done genuinely, it’s believed to be a farce. When admitting to a farce, there’s a problem. The deal is, in today’s world, innocence is a rarity and fools aplenty. As for the 19 year olds, well, they’re ahead of their times. Some, a little too ahead.

  2. Sumeet says:

    Yup. You’re a cynic. Let those CSR-ites be. Even if it’s a hogwash it’s a start.

  3. H V Kumar says:

    Ultimately, a business house has to justify diversion of funds for CSR to its stakeholders that there will be a spillover to protecting/ furthering business interests. I find this more pronounced in the way MNCs conduct their CSR activities on foreign soil. CSR is perceived to be something to boast of than achieving any social goals. As long as one separates the chaff from the grain and some good results from these CSR activities, I would be happy.

  4. Rohini says:

    Having heard an entire batch talk about their CSR internships for a period of almost two weeks, it is easy to get where this post is coming from. There was a lot of cynicism towards the concept of CSR by some whereas others were convinced that CSR activities were a genuine act of kindness by the organisation. I think the concept might be a sham but sometimes, the resources kept aside for these activities actually fill the right pockets of society! Now the question and problem lies in who decides whose pockets are to be filled!

  5. vidya says:

    As with everything else, CSR in an organization depends upon the core values of the organization, the mettle of the people who are the decision makers, the implementers and the ones who are in actual touch with the final recipients of the largesse. I am part of one such group and I am proud to say that right from our CEO to our NGO partners, all are extremely dedicated to the cause they espouse. Yes, am sure the tax benefit is welcome, but seeing the involvement and enthusiasm of even the most senior of my colleagues when it comes to the plight of the underprivileged, am hopeful enough that this is a trend that is here to stay.

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