Katheren Leitner is president of the YMCA Auckland Board
Corporate social responsibility—it’s more than a buzzword. For organisations around the globe it is a conflict faced every day in attempts to align the push for profit and their responsibility to our communities and planet.
Corporate social responsibility, commonly called CSR, has become such a big deal that the Harvard Business School now offers a Corporate Social Responsibility Program as part of its Executive Education system, and this year California’s prestigious Pepperdine University launches its Certificate in Strategic Corporate Responsibility.
Locally boards for organisations like the YMCA Auckland have two arms to their business—a commercial arm (for us it’s governing our gyms and accommodation) and a social arm (overseeing outreach programmes, camps, community services, donations and more). While we report our commercial results annually, we do not report on our social contribution, which some may indeed consider the essence of what on organisation like us is all about.
The effects of the global financial crisis continue to be felt in different parts of our business, and businesses around the country. We’ve noticed in our centres lower enrolments for programmes that are normally full. At the same time, schools have had to cut back on the length of their camps, and it has been challenging for each of us to watch as parents and schools withdraw children and services, or opt to not renew memberships due to financial pressures.
The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), with a host of worldwide locations, tells us that “Corporations around the world are struggling with a new role, which is to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of the next generations to meet their own needs. Organisations are being called upon to take responsibility for the ways their operations impact societies and the natural environment… firm must now focus its attention on both increasing its bottom line and being a good corporate citizen”.
What does this mean in practical terms? It means walking a very precarious line as a business. We are considered not-for-profit, yet without profit we have little way to fund that which is so important to us – the social elements of our business to build strong kids, strong families and strong communities.
Without our community programmes we could report a very healthy profit however, that is not what we are about. So how do New Zealand (and global) businesses marry the two?
The CCL tells us CSR requires accountability by all leaders, individuals, organisations, stakeholders, customers and community members – and yet accountability is complex.
The Ministry for the Environment in New Zealand defines CSR as “a long-term strategic positioning that links a business to a social issue or worthy cause” and can include “caring for New Zealand by meeting social obligations”. This is what we and other organisations highlighted by the Ministry, such as Vodafone and Westpac, strive for and work in their own ways to create.
As the president of the YMCA Auckland, I strive for more than a watered-down version. I challenge New Zealand corporate leaders to genuinely serve their communities and work with honesty and transparency. Through collaboration, we may find better ways to achieve CSR amidst challenging financial times.
Our organisation has, in some ways, created its own hurdles. Every year we report a profit at our AGM. Perhaps it is New Zealanders’ reaction to the word “profit” that makes fundraising more and more difficult. But the word “profit” belies our modesty.
In fact, we find many aren’t aware we still exist. We must ensure that kids, families and communities know about us if we are to come close to reaching our potential—financially and in terms of CSR.