What does social responsibility mean to you?

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We asked Canadian LSE alumni to tell us what social responsibility means to them. Thank you to the alumni that contributed their thought leadership. Here is what they had to say: 

It requires both genders participating equally…

Philanthropy is just one form of personal social responsibility, alongside other forms such as volunteering in support of community causes or fighting against social injustice. Yet while the desire to help others is universal and gender neutral, women appear underrepresented among philanthropists.  

Ask someone which big names spring to mind when you mention philanthropy and chances are they’ll mention people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet or Li Ka-shing. If you’re talking specifically about Canada, perhaps you’ll hear David Suzuki or Jim Pattison. But what about the women? People might mention Oprah, or they might simply scratch their head. There is no shortage of highly successful women within Canada and globally with the means and desire to give back to their communities, yet there seems to be a lack of meaningful discussion about how women can drive social progress through philanthropy.  For women and men alike, it is a privilege to be in a position where your hard work and good fortune enable you to give back to your community on a larger scale. Yet simply having the financial means and desire to help may not be enough if you lack the guidance to develop and execute concrete plans. The underrepresentation of women in the ranks of leading philanthropists may indicate that a more thoughtful approach and targeted support are needed to empower women to play a greater role in this form of social responsibility. When there is greater gender equality in philanthropy, everyone will benefit. – Elke Rubach, LLM Banking and Finance, 2001

In the media…

In this highly mediatized environment, the challenge for citizens is – among other things – to find a way to produce, consume and share information that is reliable. But rather than just be force-fed content from the Broccoli Broadcasting Corporation – aka, information that is nutritious but not very tasty, we need to identify news that is both interesting and important. At the BBC, the mantra has been “to make the good interesting, and the interesting, good.” In North America media organizations have been caught in a downward spiral of diminishing resources, revenue and audiences.  So what can a citizen do to stay informed – and not deformed – by the media? I think social responsibility for citizens is to demand that news organizations be more transparent and accountable. In my role as a news ombudsman for NPR (2000-2006), I found that the public was hungry to know how news organizations made decisions and acknowledge their sometimes flawed processes. The role of the ombudsman and woman is growing in many parts of the world. But it is in decline in North America. Credibility is all that a media organization has. It needs pressure from citizens to keep their eyes on the prize, which is quality journalism. – Jeffrey Dvorkin, MPhil, International History, 1970-1974

Make it sustainable…

Social responsibility gets interesting when you marry it with the desire to do the right thing.  Aligning the incentives of stakeholders – not just to be accountable but do something that’s viable and smart at the same time – is when social responsibility turns into sustainable social responsibility.  We’ve been doing it in the realm of developing-world education with Opportunity International, a long-established microfinance organisation.  By supporting school proprietors with microfinance loans and training, we’ve been giving a “hand-up” rather than a “hand-out.”  Adopt-a-school alliances only serve the fortunate few while growing their dependence on future donations, but we have been building local school potential and independence on a wide scale.  Education Finance, as we call it, profitably serves schools in every one of the 10 developing countries where we work, underlining the value that clients place on these partnerships as well as the sustainability and scalability of what we do.  So far we’ve created over 275,000 new seats in the developing world’s schools – enough to fill five Rogers Centres, BC Places or Montreal Olympic Stadiums – and these seats will survive even if we walked away.  We’ve even found a way to improve school quality while saving money at the same time.  And in the process we are strengthening communities and the next generation.  This sort of sustainable social responsibility allows those in need to retain their dignity, and it will continue its service even when outside interest dries up. – Janelle Muntz Lassonde, M.Sc. Economics, 1991

Prosperity for everyone?

As a technology project leader, I’m fascinated by innovations and the possibilities they create to improve processes and change lives. But not everyone has benefited from the frantic and disruptive pace of innovation. Wealth inequality has never been greater, illustrated by the fact that ultra-high net worth individuals own an increasingly disproportionate share of global wealth. We must confront the negative impact of innovation on the lives of our fellow human beings. As more robots, self-driving vehicles, 3D printing processes and artificial intelligence mechanisms are poised to displace the modern workforce, conversations about the need for a universal basic income have become increasingly important. Thankfully, there are a few good news stories, solar energy and its potential to “save the world” in environmental terms, being one of them. Another is blockchain, the technology behind bitcoin. This innovation holds great promise to transform the global economy for the benefit of those who have never been a part of it, specifically the 2.5 billion people who comprise the world’s unbanked and undocumented populations. This innovation could potentially enable more people to keep the value that they create as individuals, providing them with inexpensive mechanisms to create a formal identity, exchange value, and secure their personal data. There are exciting environmental transformations underway as well which are designed to incentivize environmental behavior change for individuals, businesses, and governments. To me, social responsibility means prosperity and sustainability, and I’m hopeful that blockchain can help us get there. – Hilary Carter, MSc Management, 1997

From economic incentives to societal incentives…

Being socially responsible means being a good and engaged citizen with a sense of accountability and belongingness.  It is a welcomed obligation and a privilege to everyone with an opportunity and honor to serve his/her community.  There is no limit, type or form to serving one’s community as individuals and as corporations and it can be manifested in multiple ways.  The private sector from startups to large corporations have ample opportunities to play an active and effective role in serving, helping, developing and growing their society.  Their involvement could vary from encouraging employment through job creation and improvement, to investing in people, their education and lifelong learning, fostering innovation and creativity, focusing on developing underprivileged communities, and empowering and engaging less fortunate segments and groups in the society among many other possible opportunities.

Socially responsible alternatively called “responsible business” companies that impact the society are better valued and perceived among the community.  On the one hand, large corporations and major brands that give back to the community get more endorsements and their value increases.  On the other hand, in a world very much affected by innovative information and communication technologies, emerging startups with social responsibility embedded in their DNA and driven by social entrepreneurs have an invaluable role through socially-oriented innovative businesses that support the needs of the community.  They too benefit from the power and reach of social media in maximizing their visibility and value on a global scale.

In my opinion, the criteria for measuring the value of social responsibility should go way beyond financial rewards or returns.  They should be driven by societal objectives, and a well-developed vision that is sustainable and scalable to foster a culture of transparency and ethical behavior, and to help create an ecosystem that promotes good citizenship, collaboration, voluntarism and engagement among different constituents.  As for those organizations not effectively participating, contributing and acting responsible, they will lose value and marketspace in a global agile market driven by competition and change. – Sherif H Kamel, PhD in Information Systems, 1994

Involving partnerships with stakeholders…

To me social responsibility for the private sector needs to become much more comprehensive than what currently constitutes what we call “CSR”. Corporate Social Responsibility needs to move beyond simply being a company that does no harm – such as environmental damage or tax evasion – towards a far more holistic vision that involves maximizing positive contributions to society. Too often companies think all they should do is not create harm and give a few token donations to charities. This is leading to a situation both in Canada and around the world where companies operate amidst poverty and underdevelopment.

My Engineers Without Borders initiative, Mining Shared Value, works to promote local procurement of goods and services in the host countries where mining companies operate. The mining sector epitomizes this need for a more comprehensive vision of social responsibility, because a company can run a site causing virtually no harm, and yet a host country can remain poverty-stricken. Thus, we need to pressure companies to spend as much time working to maximize their potential positive impacts – employment creation, training, and technology transfers for example – as that spent trying to prevent negative ones. Otherwise “social responsibility” is only addressing one side of the ledger. Importantly, maximizing positive impacts does not mean philanthropy. Whether donations to charity in Canada, or community investment projects by corporations operating in developing countries, these efforts pale in comparison to the potential benefits created by meaningfully trying to create shared value in partnership with stakeholders. – Jeff Geipel, MSc Development Studies 2012

It’s about humanity…

Social responsibility is recognizing the sacredness and commonness of humanity, and working from this ethical base to improve life for all in our own society and beyond. As a sociologist, my work recognizes social problems commonly labeled malice as the product of circumstances; and circumstances are part of being human. Social problems must be understood from within the unique, winding, and sometimes crooked parts of life that some of us aren’t able to leave, but which all of us have gone through. My aim from the start has always been to humanize our problems, so that we might salvage the person from the stigma of their circumstances and reignite the right to well-being in discussions on bettering society.

Social responsibility, after all, is a core human value, of which Canadians have shared in. Marriage equality. Opposing persecution. Religious freedom. The march to a more accepting and equitable society has been productive, but remains unfinished. The task at hand – encouraging and preserving social responsibility – transcends the national, ethnic, racial, labor boundaries that set us up as fellow strangers. Domestically, arts and humanities institutions are now endangered by a surging engine of corruption and profits, oiled by exploitation; whereas abroad, entire nations under threat of destruction by radical foreign policies fixed on watering old boundaries and planting new ones. Socially-inspired innovation presents a hopeful mechanism for resisting these challenges beset upon us. However, in order to truly transcend old habits of boundary-marking, it must encompass collaboration with scholars, writers, artists, experts from all walks of life, for just as entrepreneurs share in the call to action, so do we. – Anson Au, MSc Social Research Methods, 2016

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