PERSONAL TRAINER: Is corporate social responsibility all it is cracked up to be?

STEPHEN BUBB, chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO). Send your questions to:

Practically every company around seems to have a policy on corporate social responsibility (CSR). And in light of the Earth Summit and protests over globalisation, companies' motives in adopting such policies can perhaps be viewed sceptically.

So what is it all about? The European Commission defines CSR as "a concept whereby companies decide voluntarily to contribute to a better society and a cleaner environment". But it has also been described as a business contribution to sustainable development or a duty to the community.

Friends of the Earth views companies' interest in CSR as a cynical PR exercise, which it describes as "green-washing". However, the European Union is gearing up for a directive which will force commercial organisations to report on their environ-mental and community relations records.

This is an area where our organisations and the private sector can get closer together. Instead of seeing commerce as simply a source for money, we could be forging better links (especially at staff level) and helping companies understand their responsibilities to the community.

One growth area is secondments. A range of the larger companies now have an active secondment policy where they send staff to work at a charity for a period and vice versa. ACEVO is pushing the idea that our top managers and chief executives should be appointed as non-executive directors in commercial companies so as to bring direct community experience into the boardroom.

One good aspect of CRS is the greater emphasis on people issues. This is an area where they could learn much from the third sector. While we may not be able to pay such high salaries and benefits, we can teach them a lot about motivation and commitment and how you actually increase productivity without the threat of the sack or the "carrot

of performance-related pay.

The current economic climate is a good testing time for how committed commercial organisations are to CSR. Regrettably, we now see a fall off in financial contributions and sponsorship for third-sector organisations.

But as a substitute for money, "in kind

support like secondments would be a real contribution. If you have links with corporate organisations, it might be worth checking out if they would help in this way.

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