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2012 Conference: Corporate citizenship professionals urged to be ‘indispensable connectors’

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In reflecting on the theme of the 2012 International Corporate Citizenship Conference, Corporate Citizenship: Managing Many Environments, Katherine V. Smith, executive director of the Center for Corporate Citizenship, advised conference attendees that the business, social and economic environments will continue to present opportunities for rethinking the role of business in society.

Smith noted that professionals must manage strategic, operational and personal environments by mastering knowledge, context, and structure. The Center, she explained, wants to assist professionals in confronting and navigating these volatile environments by helping them acquire knowledge about practices, issues, and operational context.

Offering a closer look at the business environment, Smith presented results from a meta-analysis of 214 studies seeking to understand how environmental or social corporate citizenship investments affect the financial performance of a company. Examining nine different effects that could be measured, one finding of the analysis was that corporate citizenship investments haven’t been shown to hurt firm performance and there may be positive benefits to some types of investments.

“It looks like if you ask the question: Does it pay to be good? It does, probably. It doesn’t hurt, for sure,” Smith remarked. “I think this is a really important study for us to be familiar with. It’s thousands of data points over 30 years and it strongly supports the importance of the work that you all do.”

Smith also revealed early findings from the Center’s 2012 State of Corporate Citizenship study. This biennial signature research looks at the executive perspective on the role that corporate citizenship can and should play in society and in their companies. As part of that research, the Center tracked a question that parallels the Nielsen Global Socially Conscious Consumer study and compared responses when 1,000 U.S. consumers and 750 U.S. executives were asked what issues business should be involved in solving.

“What we learned is that there is substantial agreement among executives and consumers about business involvement in a handful of issues,” Smith said. “There were also areas where significant gaps emerged.” She pointed out that the surveys found corporate executives more concerned about equity issues related to workforce readiness than U.S. consumers. The surveys showed consumers were more concerned with basic human needs such as food and access to water.

Understanding these gaps is important, Smith said, to better align companies’ corporate citizenship investments with their consumers’ interests.

Turning her focus to the operational context that those assembled operate in every day, Smith presented an analysis of the words most commonly used by 285 corporate citizenship professionals when asked to share their companies’ greatest challenges. From those words themes emerged and in looking at how they connected, four primary areas of concern were revealed:

  • Global strategy and operational integration
  • Employee engagement and community involvement
  • Measuring:  Outputs and impacts
  • Communicating corporate citizenship

Further analysis looked at the combination of operational and strategic forces, such as environment and society, that make up the macro context in which corporate citizenship professionals work.

“Context is central to your job description,” Smith stressed. “You are uniquely qualified to provide perspective and add value just by helping your company to understand the macro context. This is the value that you really bring to all of your companies. It’s your primary area of expertise. You’re the one that will understand communities whether geographic or affinity-based. You’ll understand environmental impacts and you’ll understand emerging social issues because you’re interacting at the intersections of your firm and these forces.”

Smith added that the opportunity and the challenge for corporate citizenship professionals is to be able to respond in a context where the landscape is changing continually. “There are no real maps. You are going to have to be trailblazers. You’re forging new paths and connections all the time.”

What makes these challenges even more significant, Smith explained, is that professionals are facing them in a corporate organizational structure that does not match the networks they work in. While many corporate structures operate as linked verticals, corporate citizenship professionals must create networks that span many boundaries to create a more networked structure.

“You probably can’t affect the structure of your organization,” Smith remarked. “But you can organize or structure your work. So we have to structure our work so that our responses are appropriate for our context, purpose, and competencies.” Some contexts will lend themselves more to looser and more robust networks, she added, and some will demand tighter networks that allow for more command and control.

“The key thing to remember is that you are the indispensable connector in the leadership network of your firm and you can lead from any seat.”

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