Birds eye view of a 6 way pedestrian crossing in Japan. There are lots of people walking in all sorts of confused directions.

CSR is Dead

Why Purpose is moving from the sideline to the core of business strategy

When the Royal Commission into Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services published its final report in February 2019, the death knell sounded loudly for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)Kenneth Hayne’s report implicated Australia’s largest financial institutions as having engaged in conduct that fell well below community standards.  It illustrated systemic issues of misconduct and serious lapses in moral judgement. Hayne was scathing in his assessment of our Big 4 banks, but he reserved his most damning comments for NAB’s since de-throned Chairman and CEO. In the same week they were due to testify to the commission, their staff had been pressuring brokers to sell 5 mortgages each before Christmas. Hayne stated, “My fear – that there may be a wide gap between the public face NAB seeks to show and what it does in practice – remains”.


And this is where the CSR problem lies – in the paradox between the cultivated public perception of societal commitment, and in the day-to-day behaviour in core business activity. This is further underscored by the fact that Australia’s biggest financial institutions are also some of the country’s most visible corporate philanthropists

A red, yellow and white emergency rescue helicopter with the Westpac bank logo on the side hovers with some Australian bushland in the background.
Westpac Rescue choppers have a visible presence all around Australia and work with government agencies to save lives.

For many organisations, Corporate Social Responsibility, has been used as a bolt-on – a well-intentioned but distinctly separate activity to core business. And not only in the financial services industry, which is just the easiest to pick on right now.  When uncomfortable truths around ethical failings in core business come to light, CSR appears almost as a mea culpa. It comes across as a kind of atonement to help balance out the indiscretions committed. It’s clearer than ever that this disconnected model has serious flaws. The time has come for a new, more integrated approach – one that connects core business activity with commitment to a broader stakeholder framework.

Corporate Social Responsibility is Being Replaced by Business Purpose


So how did we get here? Company founders began to understand that stakeholders extended beyond the boardroom at the end of the 19th century. Wealthy philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie and John D Rockefeller believed that healthy, happy customers and communities were essential for business success. But it wasn’t until the 1940’s that laws were changed so that businesses, and not just their owners, could support charities, and with this shift corporate foundations were born. In 1953, Howard Bowen published The Social Responsibilities of the Businessman. He suggested that businesses have a social obligation “to follow those lines of action which are desirable in terms of the objectives and values of our society”. But it was Peter Drucker who took the concept further, and laid down the thinking that would lead CSR to becoming a formalised business principle.  In 1974 he wrote, 

“The business enterprise is a creature of a society and an economy, and society or economy can put any business out of existence overnight…The enterprise exists on sufferance and exists only as long as the society and the economy believe that it does a necessary, useful, and productive job.”

Drucker’s seminal thinking led organisations to consider their impact on society and by the 1980’s business and social interests were more linked than ever. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio heads of state committed to sustainable development that would not compromise the planet for future generations. This led to businesses developing environmental policies to flank their community initiatives. By the new millennium Corporate Social Responsibility became a strategic imperative for leading businesses. In 2010 the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) published a set of voluntary standards intended to help organisations implement CSR. Its aim was to assist them to enhance society and the environment instead of contributing negatively to them. And so, for a while, CSR served us well. 


But what we are currently experiencing is a fundamental shift in societal demands. There are many converging forces driving the evolution towards broader stakeholder integration. There is the democratisation and accessibility of information driven by the digital revolution. Once voiceless stakeholders now command a new level of power – customers, employees, shareholders, community members and even suppliers can be activists or disruptors. There is the growing economic influence of millennials, who need to ‘believe in’ the organisations they work for and the brands they buy from. And there is the growing remorse of retiring baby-boomers who are looking back and realising that perhaps they’d been led astray by Milton Friedman’s narrow definition of the responsibility of the corporation. They are now thinking about their legacies and righting some wrongs. There are many more drivers of change, all pointing to one irrefutable truth – in 2019 we all expect much more of businesses than ever before.


So what does it take to evolve towards a more holistic approach? The first step is to start with organisational purpose. In 2017, when Blackrock Capital’s CEO, Larry Fink, published his annual Letter to CEO’s, it had a seismic effect on the global business community. He wrote, 

“Without a purpose, no company can fulfil its full potential. It will ultimately lose the licence to operate from its key stakeholders.”

This instigation to the leaders helming companies in Blackrock’s USD$6.3 trillion portfolio, was an unequivocal call to action. He challenged them to understand their stakeholders and articulate a broader societal purpose. He saw it as an imperative for long-term value creation. Fink in no way gave them a hall pass on required shareholder returns. He asked them to balance competing priorities whilst taking a longer-term view to value growth. Whilst organisations like Unilever and Patagonia had embraced purpose-led strategy long before Fink’s missive, the effect was to escalate Purpose to a much broader audience of business leaders. A bigger movement, to transition purpose from a sideline activity to the core of business strategy, had begun.


One of the biggest differences between this contemporary approach where purpose is at the centre of business strategy and traditional CSR is in the stakeholder integration. Activation of purpose cannot happen without two key steps: a deep understanding of all the key stakeholders, and validation that the purpose actually serves and aligns them. What becomes increasingly obvious is that there is interconnectivity between the various stakeholder groups. A sound stakeholder framework includes customers, employees, shareholders, suppliers, community, environment and often government or other regulatory authorities. The upside in aligning these groups is that a business’ tailwind increases exponentially – when you have their backs, they all have yours too. This is why purpose-led businesses outperform the market by 14 times over a 10-year period.


There are many options available for delivering purpose within organisations, from B-Corp certification through to purpose-led transformation. Many organisations already have the ingredients to evolve to stakeholder-integrated, purpose-led strategy – they just need to connect the dots. As we head into an uncertain future, the search for meaning has intensified, as has the need to create meaningful connections. It’s time for Australian business leaders to step up. By identifying and activating a higher purpose, they can guide their companies into the new decade with the right foot forward.

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