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CSR Investments Sustainability

The disparagingly insidious view on charity and social investments by business

Making money is different from investing money for larger good

I have always found it insanely ridiculous when well attired successful business persons, either holding very senior positions in corporate echelons, or more often than not, being leading dudes with more-wealth-to-flush-than-can- manage private equity superhero or their equally similar investment banking counterparts, say in public: “We are not about CSR. It is different from business and profits. We are here for making profits. We have our investors and shareholders to answer. Don’t even assault our moralities by telling us that sustainability and business core competency connect with social issues makes sense! Bottom of pyramid (BOP) is a farce. We can’t make money where people can’t afford to pay such that there is exponential return!”

The rambling goes on, outrageously silencing the lone voice, who displayed the courage to ask such a  BOP/social investment question to an investment savvy financial access and success  laden “business exemplified icon”, in a recently concluded conference on entrepreneurship.

What business and investment icons don’t understand

The historical assumption made by the well offs (and that includes the growing middle class) states that social discord and environmental degradation is an eventuality worth suffering to ensure double digit growth and economic returns, and as such is an external factor to business and commerce.

It’s true that if one decides to factor in all the social and environmental costs of doing business or running an industry into the equation, you would never ever have a product or a service ready for market. So essentially, you move on, believing in efficiency, productivity, speed and returns, above everything else, with the hope that the welfare state model will take care of societal anomalies and malaise through your tax payments and other levies. The more money you make, the more tax you pay, the more insidiously unaware  you become that you (the typical business icon/investment hero) are the cause of most of the havoc we see today globally in terms of disenfranchisement, discord, diseases, disadvantage and death. Call it 5D if you like management jargon! 🙂

(On an aside, someone made an interesting point the other day: “Humanity is all about competing to ensure who dies later and who dies first!”

Indeed, 5D is a very harsh comment. But without doubt the true reality which we all face today. Coming to the earlier question of ‘can you manufacture/produce anything at all?’,’ the answer lies in have reasonable (and  not runaway ambitions ) for growth and making money, such that we are able to market our products and services with a clear conscience, knowing fully well that we are not worsening the already pathetic living and working conditions of the consumption class. And this is where BOP investments demonstrate their true meaning. That of selling at a price point which BOP communities can afford and more fundamentally selling a service or product which is need based and not advertising influenced or economic growth dogma driven!

(Would social enterprises of today also become the runaway double digit exponential growth corporation of tomorrow? Hopefully not, but if they are driven my venture funds and private equity investments, they certainly will! Please note Microfinance as a case in point…)

So, to finance professionals of all kinds, know that patient capital and patient returns is the only way to ensure that your investment does not create material harm on unsuspecting souls. All mainstream investments will need to have a growing component of socially responsible bottom of pyramid investments to eventually neutralize the social discord and tilt the balance more in favor of inclusive economic growth.

So let me end this peace with a teaser:

Is a green building really green?

*****

By Unmesh Brahme

A Yale World Fellow and Global Creative Leader, THNK School of Creative Leadership Amsterdam, Unmesh Brahme is Global Managing Director for Coach Partners & Purpose Leaders Worldwide.

His work is at the interface of business, society, international relations and governance. He provides leadership, mentoring and counsel to a portfolio of initiatives in purpose, corporate and brand citizenship, sustainability leadership, education innovation, climate change and governance, across industries and domains.

Earlier in his career, Unmesh has worked as Country Director, Room to Read India, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility for Ogilvy & Mather, India, Head of Sustainability for HSBC, and held advisory positions with Oxfam, World Bank, civil society organizations and foundations. Through the last two decades, he has been instrumental in strategizing sustainability efforts for marquee clients: Castrol, British Petroleum, Unilever, USAID, Johnson Controls, Walt Disney Company, United Nations Development Program, among others.

Unmesh serves on the international boards of US and South East Asia based organizations: Global Business School Network, International Society of Sustainability Professionals, SustainAsia, sphere-E and is a member of the Renewable Energy and International Law Network at Yale. He also serves on the editorial board of Anthem New Energy Finance at the Anthem Press, an independent publishing house with presence in UK, US and India. His prior board and committee positions have been with Net Impact, Sesame Workshop, CII, FICCI, among others.

Unmesh teaches at business schools globally and speaks regularly at influential forums worldwide. His engagements have been with the Forestry & Environmental Sciences School, School of Management and Law School at Yale University; Kenan Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina and Indian School of Business, among others. He is also a mentor to the Ashoka University Young India Fellowship Program.

Unmesh has contributed in a significant way to the development of corporate and brand citizenship and a number of innovative initiatives in stakeholder engagement, international relations, public diplomacy, governance, including discerning Bottom of Pyramid (BOP) work in microfinance, financial literacy, environment, sustainability, climate change adaptation and mitigation, renewable energy, community investment, supply chain, employee volunteering and social enterprises.

1 reply on “The disparagingly insidious view on charity and social investments by business”

Hi Unmesh,

The one point you made – “Would social enterprises of today also become the runaway double digit exponential growth corporation of tomorrow?, Hope not”, is something to take note of. For this happen, the proponents of Social Enterprises should come up with clearly defined exit strategies (Otherwise, where does the growth stop? How does one, for lack of a better phrase, cash out?). This applies to not just the investors (like Acumen Fund) but also the founders.

Best,
Ashok

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