Understanding what CSR is and what it is not

I got a nice New Year’s gift today from VivaCell-MTS – a package of goodies, containing also a copy of the fourth edition of the company’s Corporate Responsibility report, called VivaCell-MTS to Armenia.  Thanks! :)

I call it a CR report although, in content and style, it is very different from the reports that companies publish in countries with an established understanding of Corporate Responsibility.  I’ve written this entry to focus on the fact that some of the examples of the company’s activities do not fit the general understanding of CSR (or my understanding of the general understanding, anyway :)).

Before I go further with this, I need to state clearly that there is a lot that VivaCell-MTS has done for Armenia and, as a company, it is definitely a role model for many other businesses working in the country.  It has played a major role in the popularization of such terms as Corporate Social Responsibility and Corporate Citizenship, which few people in Armenia had heard before the company entered the market in 2005.  And some of the things that the company does are truly laudable, like partnering with universities and supporting the education sector in general.  However, what has happened is that the company has gotten into the habit of labeling almost everything it does as CSR and that is causing a lot of confusion about what this concept really is.

So what is CSR?  I know that there will continue to be a number of entries on both this blog and others answering this question using various approaches.  Ironically, one can find a very good definition and description of the concept on the VivaCell-MTS CR page.  So why is it that, among other things, the VivaCell-MTS to Armenia 2010 report includes some activities which are clearly acts of commercial sponsorship, like –

I find it easier to understand cases where companies declare that their philanthropic activities are actually strategic CSR and the confusion between corporate philanthropy and CSR is a major issue in Armenia as well.  Perhaps a lot more time is needed before there is a clear understanding of the differences between philanthropy and strategic CSR (which I had mentioned in a previous entry on this blog, in Armenian).  But I believe it is a lot easier to understand the differences between CSR and commercial sponsorship.

The way I see it, sponsoring the cultural performances outlined in the points above do not really deal with any major issues faced by the company or society at large.  The benefits to society are largely aesthetic and cultural satisfaction.  Does the company gain anything in long-term benefits?  A lot of PR and advertising space, for sure, but I’m not sure what else.  Again, these were all major cultural events in the country and many people (myself included) are very happy that they took place.  But most people who understand the concepts of sustainability and CSR (myself included) would have to concede that these do not fit the bill.

I’d be very happy to see VivaCell-MTS continue to do their wonderful work in the areas or corporate philanthropy, CSR and commercial sponsorship.    And I love the fact that the company produces an Armenia-specific publication, focusing on the community work it does in this country.  But I would be much happier to see a spade called a spade.  I think it’s perfectly fine for a company to have annual publications about the work that it does in these areas, as long as it is willing to concede that these are different concepts.

I’d be happy to hear from anyone whose opinion differs on this.  Please write your comments  in the space below and anything relevant to this topic will be published.  Any takers? :)

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