Moving from Local Corporate Social Responsibility to Global Social Engagement

How society and companies can practice innovative social engagement and profit from doing so

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a number of international social organizations were founded. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund increasingly broadened their scope of activity and soon began promoting “international development.” In addition to the large development organizations – such as the WHO and UNICEF – there arose a number of nonprofit organizations that addressed a wide variety of societal concerns. Many of these were active in several countries, for the most part selectively. The establishment of these multilateral organizations and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) contributed significantly to the internationalization of the development concept. During those decades of the 20th century, business played a very small role, exclusively as a source of funding.

This is changing in the new millennium. Right from the start, networking has ranked among the major successes and drivers. The triumphant advance of the internet and the discussions of new networked structures within companies are just two examples of this.

And in the context of social engagement? The private sector became more important, and PPPs (public-private partnerships) were formed. Here, too, companies tended to be generally involved only in the role of donors, at least at first. With the UN Sustainable Development Goals / Agenda 2030 published in 2016, industries and companies are now challenged to even greater action, and to make sustainable contributions that go far beyond donations, CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) action days, or CSR departments. In some countries, such as India, companies are even required by law to make regular investments in the social sector. This involves not just providing funds, but alsoimparting expertise and networking.

The strict separation of social engagement and for-profit business is now dissolving and is coming under increasing scrutiny. Implementing the sustainability goals requires significantly more than corporate donations and purely NGO-driven projects on the ground. Even after many decades of engagement, poverty and other ills still abound in many countries, while true system-spanning changes remain barely discernible. There are certainly various reasons for this. But one thing is clear: We need to make deeper, more systemic changes in not only how we think about and connect development and development work, but about business as well.

Even in this age of networks, the approach to development work remains quite traditional.  This is quite clear when we look at what development work takes place and how is described in the media: The attention is generally on major campaigns, such as initiatives to counter malaria or HIV; the work often involve clearly defined, limited and topic-specific projects and target groups – more education for women, children’s rights, building wells and ensuring the water supply, agricultural projects, and so forth. NGOs and companies have become specialized and now use their expertise to work in the specific places that they choose. Much is accomplished, but companies and NGOs often limit themselves to their own topics and to their local areas of involvement. Networking? Okay, but why and with whom? And what good would it do?

“It seems that we still have a long way to go when it comes to thinking and acting in a networked way, across sectors, functions and organizational structures; working in tandem with others in one development area. It will take years for the added value to become evident.” 
– Manuela Pastore –

The point is not competition, but rather cooperation.

This shift is complex, and it has meant redefining many processes. It starts on how and where you define the engagement area.

Just think about it. It is definitely normal to focus on the sector you know and where you are an expert in. That’s where you are committed and involved. Companies and NGOs prefer to get involved in their areas of expertise –an IT firm in the IT field, a pharmaceutical company in the health sector, an educational company in education. That makes sense, of course. And it is also readily understandable within the company. You can point to something specific and attribute it to your own activities, to your business, where you are ‚in‘; it doesn’t take forever make a difference if you go for tangible investments, and everyone around you can understand the why. You help where the need is clearly the most urgent (seen with your eyes) and where it best fits with your own organization.

In a few words: The development project takes place within the framework of your own internal organizational framework, your own charter and expertise, where it is “clearly” meaningful and justifiable.

On egocentric approaches and a big “however”

Admittedly, this is the view from the perspective of our organizations and our organizational concept. We do what we consider to be meaningful and morally valuable for our organization, within the framework of our social responsibility. We do it individually (isolated as our company), and successfully as we run our business, while setting clear goals and – if all goes well – perfectly attain the goals as we have defined them. Businesslike, process-oriented and process-optimized, measurable. Just perfect, right? The focus is on us and our goals, on projects, on numbers – and, of course, on the people for whom we are doing it, too. Impact-driven. What mostly means result-driven. The difference between results and impact, do you know?

However, less attention is paid to networking and system-changing approaches. To areas where results are not so clearly measurable and cannot be attributed clearly to one or another activity. That is still a long way off… and also much more difficult. Because it would require a relatively long-term commitment, with greater risk, would be harder to measure and therefore also harder to communicate – both internally and externally.

Donors much prefer very specific and concrete goals. We donate privately for food and houses, for children, for a social startup that is again in one specific “field”, for a particular case. The concreter it is defined and ideally also “closed in itself” , therefore easily “measurable” the more funding might come in. The same is true for business engagement and donations. Investing in the wider context is difficult – in fact, they may be willing to invest in one specific project or area, but not necessarily in linking that project or area with others, even if, in the long term, 1 plus 1 could equal 3 or more.

If, for once, we look not at ourselves but at the people in need, the picture is different. What use is the best screening program, if polluted water somewhere else is making many people sick, or if people don’t have the income to eat a healthy diet and be physically active? What help hygiene trainings or toilet buildings if they don’t have any way to wash their hands and come by soap? What good is it to give people internet access and mobile phones, if they don’t know how to use the internet or are aware of the risks that come with it? If they don’t have the business and marketing skills to grow their income although they might produce some items? If there isn’t any work, or any chance to pay for school fees or cultural rules we don’t know? If statistics forget to mention that the good GDP is not based on a balanced distribution, but reflects that rich are getting more and more rich and the rest, well…we are by nature very impressed by technology solutions, great ideas for sure – if they reach the poor, too, and create real impact.

This is clear:

1. Only if we start to act differently, we will achieve different, more sustainable solutions. 2. We need to see the whole system and engage beyond ourselves – together with others (companies, NGOs) and together with (not for) the people on the ground – across traditional borders.

3. We need to turn the focus away from ourselves and our organizational goals and turn it to the reality of the people in need.

But first, a few specifics:  My name is Manuela Pastore. For 7 years, I have led a global social entrepreneurship initiative at Boehringer Ingelheim, an international pharmaceutical company with approximately 50,000 employees. With the Making More Health (MMH) initiative, we are promoting many social enterprises worldwide, building networks and actively involving employees from a wide variety of departments and countries in our projects. We have launched many projects in our two primary regions in South India and Western Kenya, in areas of 30 sq. km and 40 sq. km respectively, working in tandem with a variety of target groups and creating connections among them. Our projects take shape over time, based on the needs of the people there. This includes some projects that are not directly related to health.

The underlying idea is to introduce holistic, systemic change, rather than a few less focused projects. Working with the people on site, rather than for them. Including local NGOs, social enterprises from our network, employees and initial external partners. Working in partnership, in a way that allows everyone to benefit – in a variety of ways. We view MMH not primarily as CSR, not as social commitment, but above all as an opportunity to view and experience things differently, to listen to other questions and to ask other questions ourselves, consequently also to do things differently. And we have learned that this offers enormous space for innovation, including for our own business.

We offer healthcare training sessions where we ask people which topics are of interest to them. They may not necessarily be the topics that we would offer based on our expertise. By the way, what do you mean by this? Which health topics were mentioned here? (see *Answers at the end of the blog entry)

Goat health training in a tribal village in South India

Hygiene training in rural India

Hygiene training

Digital training in India

We also hold digital training sessions with the goal of making knowledge more accessible. And we send our chemists and pharmacologists to local sites to hold training sessions on ways for people to earn money, such as by making soap.

Hygiene & Income generation – Selfhelp group women learn on how to make soap

Making soap in India

We collect informational and instructional materials from our own training sessions and from our partners, uploading them to a platform where anyone interested can access them at no cost and use them to hold similar training sessions in other places. After all, it makes no sense to keep reinventing the wheel. It’s better to keep it rolling and get things done, right? Here you can find posters, flyers, a COVID-19 awareness song, playing cards that teach information about health, and much more.

If you have interesting material for this platform, please contact me directly.

The platform to share knowledge for free

Our employees hold one-week leadership training sessions on site, teaching our self-help groups and other interested people about sales and marketing, business planning, animal health and safety in everyday life. As a large company, we have experts in almost every area. So why should we only teach people about health? And here’s what we find most surprising:0} We, the people from developed countries, suddenly see things differently. We recognize new connections and understand that being poor does not necessarily mean being less happy – on the contrary. Back in our everyday working life, we ask new questions and find different answers.For more about this topic:

MMH Leadership Insights Week

And what do we learn on site from the projects and in our network with social intrapreneurs? 

Merely knowing about health is not enough to create more health. The people we encounter on site need holistic solutions around which they can build their everyday lives. In addition to better health, they need infrastructures, opportunities to earn money, education. All of this must be structured in such a way that people recognize their values and cultures in it, that they have the greatest possible participation in the process, and that the solutions are also resilient to crisis. Crisis situations such as COVID-19 or floods can quickly destroy what has been accomplished – or they can also show that our training sessions have been successful.

For example, the community of people with albinism in Webuye, Western Kenya (where we are currently working with 130 families) have become “heroes” in the recent months of COVID-19. People with albinism in East Africa are often persecuted, attacked and even killed; they experience a great deal of superstition and misery. Not so in Webuye: The community supplied the small town with liquid soap and information about sanitation, for everyone from the boda bodas (bicycle taxi drivers) to students and elderly neighbors. The local media reported widely on their efforts. The community not only served others, but it also sold soap where possible. Since then, community members have also been raising chickens, building school desks and continuing to educate themselves. They are also involved in helping other people with albinism and sharing what they know with the poor. Their soap-making process was recently filmed and shared digitally. As a result, slum dwellers in Nairobi can also make soap and share basic information about hand-washing. The same is true for people living at Lake Victoria and in albinism communities that cross borders.

Another striking aspect of this networking approach: The people affected are developing their own ideas and building confidence. They have a different self-image – and they are viewed differently by others. And this is a result of the networking approach.
A good example of what is possible. But still not enough. More on this topic:

Albinism in Webuye

A single company, a single organization will not be in a position to introduce all the necessary changes

The people in this community face complex challenges. Day after day, from morning to night. Infrastructures are lacking, knowledge is lacking. Poverty, poor health… If this were a marketplace, it would take more than one stand selling apples to create a sustainable market. Similarly, it would take more than a single investor implementing as many projects as possible, focused on specific issues or target groups, and scaling them up. Rather, it is also primarily a matter of working together with the people on site and with many other investors/partners to introduce coordinated, systemic changes in parallel across the widest variety of areas of life – and to network these changes.

“Therefore, with MMH we are seeking partners, social enterprises, NGOs, other companies from the widest variety of sectors, who will work not only with us but, above all, with the local representatives and population groups to develop and coordinate solutions.”– Manuela Pastore –

What is most important here is to create trust, in all directions. We need to understand what is really needed (rather than focusing on our own goals) and thereby strengthen the people in this community in such a way that they can independently continue and broaden the effort.We must move away from individual goals and turn to networked structures and systemic changes. And in doing so, create added value for all, including the organizations themselves. We must move away from individual, self-centered project parameters and measurements and focus on real added value that can yield innovations for a better future. Building on social engagement. For people in need, for our environment and also for our future business. I am sure that we in our “developed” world will learn and discover a great deal from this, as we pose new questions and find different answers.

“Innovations begin where new, unaccustomed partnerships start.”– Manuela Pastore

Where we discover and encourage new partnerships, such as those with social enterprises which, like startups, pursue entrepreneurial – somewhat “wild” – ideas, while keeping the focus on societal challenges. Ashoka, a very large global NGO and our longtime MMH partner, looks for such committed startups, guides them through selection processes (whereby only about five out of 100 social enterprises receive the lifetime Ashoka fellowships), and builds a network of Ashoka Fellows. We support them in our MMH initiative and attempt to connect them with our projects as well as share our experiences with them.This in turn helps the social enterprises to manage their startups with more expertise, and it makes an impact on their work in society. And it helps our leaders learn from each other and create added value for all. It is a relatively long road – perhaps also an unfamiliar and especially new one – to further develop these essential networks and thereby advance their networked development work. Working together over the past ten years, we have experienced, tested and further developed many things. During that time, MMH has become a movement that continues to grow, building on its internal functions and expanding via very diverse ways of working with external partners. It has arrived at the place where it began as a vision many years ago – building bridges between the social sphere and the business world. With many facets and network-like “contagious” expansion.

There are many enthusiastic people who are searching for a sense of purpose and who are now, within MMH, also finding opportunities to connect their everyday work with social engagement, developing business ideas that work to counter the artificial separation of the social world and the business world. In the end, there is only this one world. In the future, we will also focus particularly on finding additional external partners to work with us on taking the next steps forward. After the internal cross-functional expansion of MMH and the active, ongoing engagement of employees from the widest variety of directions – which have led to many additional ideas and contributions on site – external partners will even be able to create a far greater impact here. And they will also profit from it.

If you find this interesting and want to be a part of it – we have opened our Leadership Weeks to people outside the company: 
Information about our Leadership Weeks (PDF)

We will succeed, if… Well, if we – each one of us, no matter where we work, or in what field – overcome the traditional, isolated “CSR vs. business” thinking and recognize the opportunity to work together to create a better world. Whether it be in everyday business decisions in general, or in specific socially oriented projects on site. If we go beyond investing in technological developments alone, extending our reach to social innovations and thereby also assuming risks. After all, not all approaches will lead to success, but this is also true of technological innovations. If we find partners in other companies that also want to achieve results beyond the ordinary sustainability projects and CSR departments. And this is no easy matter.

However: Innovations and systemic changes, if they accomplished great things, were never easy. And a better world should be worth it to us, and we should give it a try. Right?

*author: Manuela Pastore, published originally in German language at PICUS blog

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