There are villains in every business sector, but this is particularly disconcerting in organizations that claim to be all about doing good. When I was on the board of directors at a Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) almost 20 years ago, there seemed to be a disproportionate number of womanizers and power-obsessed ladder-climbing politicos within the organization. These vocal and visible personalities overshadowed the important work of a majority of committed individuals, and the supererogatory efforts of some rare superstars. Such type-A activists leave a bad taste about the moral genuineness of purportedly ethical institutions.
Despite my belief in the efficacy and importance of the charitable sector and green/cause marketing, I can be a bit cynical about the leadership dysfunction in socially concerned organizations and initiatives. I wear this misanthropic chip on my shoulder when I attend said conferences, which suffer from the added problem of conference-intoxication: the euphoria that occurs when you get 1,000 people in the same room from the same business sector, and the subsequent come-down from the schmooze fest roller-coaster. It can all feel a lot more like a religious gathering than something aimed at substantive social/environmental/business change.
I recently attended a community and corporate social responsibility (CCSR) conference in Canada. Not only was this past-skeptic happily surprised, I was floored. Floored by the brave intelligence of the young up-and-coming leaders. Floored by the self-criticism and “it’s never enough” business veterans who have already invested millions in social programs. Floored by these new pioneers’ business skills. But mostly floored by the genuine goodness of the people I encountered.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We were all drinking ample amounts of our own socially conscious Kool-aid. At one point, I sat around a table with 10 other people, where we were tasked with solving various problems surrounding homelessness, systemic poverty, food literacy, and education: all in under 50 minutes! There was a thoughtful maturity to these focus groups, though, despite the gargantuan tasks at hand. Also, there was a sophistication and humility that lacked in the CSR days of yore.
My conversion was complete after attending a presentation by an innovative entrepreneur, Angie Drascovic, founder of Zoë Alliance. What stood out was an expression she used several times: “desert starts.” These are startups in regions that have virtually no infrastructure or resources. By leveraging 10% of corporate gift budgets, the alliance creates entirely new industries in impoverished regions that suffer from challenges ranging from drought to kidnapping. Her systematic, competent determination is evidence that there are some true leaders in the trenches of the CCSR sector.
One of the keynote speakers (Andreas Souvaliotis, president of Air Mile for Social Change) shares some of my skepticism, and put it bluntly:
“CSR has drastically failed to save the planet. Ten years ago we were in half as much trouble as we are in now.”
But he ended his speech on an optimistic note. According to Souvaliotis, we will make a lot more money by doing good.
This is a common idea, espoused by such business minds as Harvard’s Michael Porter, who is well known for linking competitiveness to CSR. But, the real meat on the bones of such arguments is not in the soundness of the ideals, but in the strength of the execution.
With daring frontlines innovators like Zoë Alliance, it gives me hope that -- practically speaking -- the ethical and competent leadership is in place to make it happen. As green marketers, and cause marketers we should take a page out these highly creative, but also highly proficient leaders. Here’s to a better tomorrow.