After the incorporation in the Company’s Act as a requirement, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has become a large business in India. There have been several CSR Summits, Conferences & Seminars and Roundtables over past three years, held practically every month in the metro cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai.
Organizations like the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) have been busy in organizing these events with Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs (IICA) taking a lead. IICA has been canvasing training programs of 3 months and 9 months’ durations for CSR managers and implementing NGOs with certification. This “training business” hasn’t been very successful because of the high fees and poor delivery capacities. Finally, there has been a surge of newsletters and magazines as well and launch of CSR dedicated websites with a lot of content that is recycled. Thankfully the momentum seems to be damping down a bit and most involved are in a kind of “CSR fatigue”.
But honestly, CSR has opened a big canvas of new business to several. These include consultants who know how to write and present well (specially to convert something basic into a form that has a halo), report designers and video-graphers (i.e. the “communications people”), researchers who are fond of conducting surveys and of course the, environmental and social NGOs who help organizations to implement their CSR mandates with “community engagements” and conduct “independent assessments” of impacts. We also see consultants who help in management of funds to get the best “tax advantage” and provide IT based solutions.
A friend of mine walked in my office and asked “Dr Modak, does your company work in the CSR domain?”. When I said I really don’t work “exactly” in this arena, he was surprised. “Well, every environmental and social consulting organization in India is into CSR game tapping the business. You are already late”. I offered him a well brewed coffee. He left.
Another well-wisher friend dropped in. “You have a section 8 not for profit company as well and so a combination of” for profit” and “not for profit” is perfect to meet the “business requirements” and sponge the monies. You must use your network now and talk to the Heads of the CSR of some of the large corporations and make offerings. In some companies, the Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) look at the CSRs and in some companies CSR is handled by the Corporate Responsibility Units (CRUs)”.
I decided to venture in the CSR business. A friend advised me to prepare an attractive brochure and hire a team – one from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, someone from Miranda House in Delhi and a third person from a family of ex-IAS bureaucrat, retired recently from Ministry of Corporate Affairs. I decided to follow his advice.
I contacted few conference organizers of CSR events, and got hold of contacts of the participants and speakers. When I put together the list, I realized that more than 50% of these attendees were common and seem to be attending and speaking at every other event!
I couldn’t really find however any familiar faces from the environmental fraternity. When asked in the “market”, I was told that CSR head is altogether a new breed. The “conventional” environmental experts are asked to manage Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) and do “liasoning” with the State Pollution Control Boards to ensure compliance. The new breed that runs the CSR show in companies are essentially those who are shunted or promoted from the Public Relations (PR) or Human Resources (HR) departments. Position of CSR head is sometimes more for a temporary transfer before the person is moved to more important or more relevant position in the organization. But their biggest qualification is that they don’t know much about the subject of environmental management and sustainability. They are however smart enough to hide their ignorance and a complete lack of the perspective by throwing jargon that they pick up from the CII/FICCI conferences.
I approached one of the large corporates and sought an appointment of the CSR Head. “Idea is to give you presentation and let you know our interest, commitment and capability in CSR” My colleague from Miranda House explained to the secretary of the CSR head – in the right voice and the pitch. The secretary was rather experienced and unmoved. She said “Mr. Ahuja gets at least 3 such requests every day and is really tired of such presentations. He is travelling to the United States this week for a 2-week mission. On his way back, he will attend a CSR roundtable in Amsterdam organized by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)”.
We were given an appointment after 3 weeks for a half hour slot in the afternoon. ” Check with me once again’ the Secretary said “Mr. Ahuja’s schedule is always packed and unpredictable”
I told my Professor Friend about meeting with Ahuja. He laughed. “You are wasting your time Dr Modak. I know Ahuja. A pretty drab person. He was brought as Head, CSR because of his poor performance in the company. Idea was to limit him to messing only 2% of the profits”. Professor lit his cigar.
“Ahuja’s wife is a friend of MD’s wife in a book reading club and that connection seems to have worked for him”
“Wow you seem to know everything Professor” I said
We went to Ahuja’s office in time. The TISS girl had prepared a dossier for me using all the right words – like 360 degrees’ approach, smart sustainability, social rate of return and pictures like “before” and “after”.
We were asked to wait. The secretary told us that Ahuja is swarmed with meetings after his international tour and may possibly give only 20 minutes. “Keep to only 5 slides”, the secretary said in a rather terse tone.
We were taken to a conference room after a wait for an hour. In this period, my colleague, daughter of ex-bureaucrat of MCA, told me about her dad’s transfers and how in this process she travelled and studied across India “Oh, this is like a 360-degree exposure -we should talk about this” I said. She smiled.
Mr. Ahuja entered the conference room.
“Who is Modak here?” He beamed. I raised my hand as done by a kid in the school when asked by the Teacher.
“Modak, I don’t know much about you and your organizations – but let me be clear”
“I get at least 2 such presentations every day and every presenter tells me a story that they are the best in CSR”
“I am not here to write a cheque. To us CSR is a culture. And we are very selective and sensitive when it comes to associating with CSR implementers”
(I remembered this as a bi-line in Ahuja’s sustainability report)
These opening remarks were said in an icy tone. Ahuja was wearing half rimmed spectacles with thinnest lenses – that made his face look critical and intelligent.
I started my 5-slide presentation. As I was on 3rd slide, Ahuja stopped me
“Please come to the point, I really don’t like beating around the bush”
I was not comfortable with this snappy interception. I wanted to introduce the concept of Strategic CSR, weave in “business and sustainability”, highlight the process, illustrate case studies of relevance to Ahuja’s company and come up with an action plan.
I felt like a mouse sitting in front of lion Ahuja
At this very moment, the telephone rang. Ahuja picked up the phone “Rita (secretary’s name), I told you not to disturb me”. He cleared looked aggravated.
But there must be someone important or higher up on the phone as Ahuja said “Yes Sir” and he said this four times before ending the conversation.
“Modak, why didn’t you tell me that you are a friend of Professor who is an adviser to the PMO. Can you please stay a bit longer and explain your plan for us? I have all the time and interest to listen to new ideas. We are always open to innovation. And I am sure we will find a way to work together” He sounded now friendly. He removed his spectacles. Rita got us some coffee.
I met Professor in the evening in our usual Coffee shop.
“Professor, why did you intervene? I could see a transformation in Ahuja. He was simply shattered after the phone call”
“Well Dr Modak, knowing how you work, I knew that your meeting with Ahuja was going to be a waste of time. So, when I met the MD at the Chembur golf club in the morning, I briefed him about you and stressed that your involvement in the CSR will be very useful for the company. And so, the MD called Ahuja” He said this with a smile. “That is how the CSR business works, my friend”
“All your proposals will be accepted now” He winked.
I returned home thinking whether it was worth to get associated with companies of “Ahuja kind”
I decided to write to Ahuja stating that I will not submit a proposal. I thought I will also say that I am very selective and sensitive when it comes to associating with CSR implementers” (essentially giving him back his own words!)
I had learnt my lesson.
If you like this post then please “follow me” or forward to your colleagues