• Podsoc #64

Corporate social responsibility and social enterprise:

In conversation with Tim Palmer

[Transcript available in the tab below]

What has business got to do with social work? Tim Palmer talks to Podsocs about the relationships companies have with society, people, communities and the environment and opportunities for social work.

Dr. Timothy Palmer is a professor of management at Western Michigan University and director of the Center for Sustainable Business Practices at the Haworth College of Business. He teaches ethics/sustainability and strategic management. His integration of service learning in the capstone strategic management class led to a Michigan Campus Compact Faculty/Staff Community Service-Learning Award in 2009. His primary research, focusing on student learning, organizational reputation and strategic decision making, has appeared in numerous publications including Strategic Management Journal, Organization Science, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Organization Research Methods, Journal of Management, and Academy of Management Learning and Education. Prior to joining WMU in 2000, Dr. Palmer was on the faculty of Louisiana State University. He also spent ten years in branch management in the Arizona banking industry and worked on Idaho’s NezPerce National Forest in fire and timber management.

Recommended citation – APA6th

Fronek, P. (Host). (2014, February 15). Corporate social responsibility and social enterprise: In conversation with Tim Palmer [Episode 64]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/corporate-social-responsibility-and-social-enterprise/.

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  2. Transcript

Transcription Podsocs 64: Corporate social responsibility and social enterprise: In Conversation with Tim Palmer

Thank you to Lesley Stynes for this transcript

[musical intro to 00:10]

Hello and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia. I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening. This morning on Podsocs we are talking to Timothy Palmer from a place with a wonderful name in the States called Kalamazoo.

Tricia: Hello Timothy, how are you?

Tim: Hi good morning Trish, I’m doing great thanks.

Tricia: Tim we’re talking about a topic I actually don’t know very much about today, and its corporate social responsibility and social enterprise. And that’s obviously your area of work. Would you like to tell us a bit about what that actually is?

Tim: Sure, sure. Actually, it’s becoming my area of work, I can’t say that it’s been historically my area of work. My area is really in strategic management but it’s a topic that I’m kind of coming to love. So, I think historically when you talk about corporate social responsibility, you date it back into the 70’s and 80’s, the early thoughts on CSR, Milton Friedman. I mean the idea was that companies’ responsibility to community was really simply just obey what the law says. And so, with regard to you know, emissions from smokestacks that if you do anything beyond what the law says, in terms of particulars that are being emitted, then you are spending somebody else’s money. You’re spending customers money, they’re paying higher prices, you’re spending employee’s money. That extra cost could be paying higher wages. So, his whole perspective always was, you shouldn’t be doing any of this CSR work unless it's plain old rhetoric. You’re just trying to sound good. You’re spending money so follow the letter of the law. But we’ve really moved a long way from that, that companies increasingly recognise that their licence to operate really comes from the community, so they have an obligation, a responsibility, not just to take but to give back to communities as well. And so, if you look at the development of CSR my sense was that there was little to none of it and then it transitioned into kind of a marketing thing where companies would give back and they would really see their CSR efforts as an extension maybe of their advertising and marketing campaigns. And so they would you know give, but the idea was they were really doing it simply to build our reputation build our brand awareness with consumers and so on. And so, it was really not so much done because we think it’s the right thing to do but it was done because we’re going to get something out of it.

Tricia: So, it has a very close relationship with ethics and practice?

Tim: Um, yeah and I think now increasingly the tie is even stronger as companies now start to think about really ‘what is our responsibility in a community given our licence does come from the community?’ You know what should it be. Should it just be about giving money, or is it somehow to build the organisation, or the community I should say, and make it stronger. And so, it’s kind of hard to untangle it as well from the ethics of the, you know, folks that run the company and their own ethical positions and moral standards and so on. It’s hard to untangle that. But I think where I wanted to go was that increasingly, companies that do it right, I believe, or do it well, see that CSR is really just kind of who they are and its really closely aligned with their strategies and their goals and their values. And those really run from the top of the organisation down to the bottom of the organisation. So, they’re not just doing it, it’s not just marketing and reputation building, but it’s a way for us to use our competencies as an organisation to give back to the community but at the same time we get something in return. We get employees who are more dedicated, more committed, we get customers that are more loyal. And so, it really is bi-directional, it goes both ways. So, I think we’ve really come a pretty long way in a fairly short amount of time, with regard to CSR.

Tricia: So how does that differ from sustainability Tim?

Tim: That’s an excellent question, and I wish I could tell you that I had a great answer for that. But as I’m learning more about this, I get the sense that sustainability recently had been almost thought synonymously with the natural environment. So, when people have talked about sustainability initiatives, they were really talking about greening initiatives, reducing their carbon footprint, global warming, and so on. And so, sustainability was limited to the natural environment and environmentalism in a sense. But any more now I see that sustainability has become sort of the umbrella, and that you know, it’s the overarching theme, and then under that umbrella are things like corporate social responsibility, and so what is our relationship to people, the social aspect, and that can be you know, our employees, it can be our customers, it can be the community, it can be society at large. But then also our responsibility to the environment, the natural environment. So, where sustainability was just the natural environment, I think now the natural environment is an element of sustainability but so is the social element as well. So, society includes social elements, it includes the natural environment.

Tricia: Tim, what sort of organisations are we talking about?

Tim: Well you’re talking about anything from Fortune 500 companies to really small social enterprises, or social entrepreneurs. I think the standard bearer these days at the large end of the spectrum, might be a company, a European company, Unilever. And The CEO is really on board with sustainability and giving back and thinking about their global supply chain and their carbon footprint, even to the point where I think he’s done kind of a neat thing where he’s now saying that he’s no longer going to provide, his company is no longer going to provide quarterly profit estimates, because it really gets people to focus on short term, and he’s thinking a lot of these activities take a long time and so to try to push people out of that short term thinking. So definitely Unilever is an example. But you know even here in south west Michigan, Whirlpool, which is a global appliance manufacturer, they’re really getting into it pretty majorly as well. And so, their big focus from a strategic aspect is Habitat for Humanity. And so, every appliance, every range, refrigerator range, initially it was in north America, and I think it’s now worldwide, comes from Whirlpool, and they have a very close alliance with Habitat for Humanity and it makes sense because they’re an appliance manufacture. So, it makes sense that that would be where they’d focus their energy.

So, you’ve got the big companies, the Fortune 500 companies, you then have very small micro companies, start-up companies, social entrepreneurs, and they can be just even individuals in a small town. We’ve done some work in New Orleans, down in Louisiana, on our Gulf Coast following hurricane Katrina, and you saw a lot of social entrepreneurs springing up whose, their sole mission is about giving back to the community. So, whereas the fortune 500 companies, it's you know one by product of what they do is CSR, for a social enterprise, or a social entrepreneurs, their mission is about giving back, and so we were talking to individuals who were trying to do urban farming as an example, some local education initiatives. So, it’s kind of hard to answer the question what kind of company are we talking about, it ranges. There’s a full spectrum of firms there.

Tricia: Australia has always had a very strong welfare state, but that is shrinking. And I wonder whether there’s going to be a greater role for CSR in the future and looking after or providing services to people who are disadvantaged in society.

Tim: Yeah, I don’t know, you know here in the US what direction it’s going. I know that one of the things that I like to do with my own students is get them actively involved in communities. And social justice is a big element with them, even my role in the business school. And so, we focus a lot on the homeless community and unfortunately, I wish I could say that the numbers are getting smaller but in fact it seems like they’re not. And there’s this, you know, the kind of economy that we’re in, there’s just not the kind of state money, government money to go around, and so it does fall to organisations and companies to try to fill the gap.

Tricia: So, why is it important do you think for social workers to understand CSR?

Tim:You know it’s interesting because I’ve had some conversations with social workers about this and I think actually there’s a natural partnership between business folks and social workers and that social workers deeply understand the social challenges. And so, if you’re talking about homeless or poverty or HIV/Aids, or whatever the challenges might be, social workers understand in great depth, those challenges. Businesses have a really rich understanding of enterprise, and you know what it takes to create a company to get things done. So, when you marry those two together, I think there’s an, you know, an awesome opportunity there to use the skill set of business folks with the rich understanding of the complexities of the social side from the social workers.

Tricia: I imagine it would be very easy to put money in the wrong direction. Because it isn’t just money that can improve situations, it’s how you spend that, and how you listen to the voice of the people who are in receipt of that.

Tim:Right, right, and I think social workers do a better job than business. And really, maybe a good example of that, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Tom’s Shoes?

Tricia: No.

Tim:Well Tom’s shoes is, I guess it’s an American company, but it was a guy that went down to Argentina just on holiday and saw way too many kids that didn’t have shoes, and talked to some folks down there and all the health issues that come from you know, issues with open sores and cuts and so on. And so, he decided that he would create a charitable company, a social enterprise, where the mission of the organisation wasn’t so much just to make money, but that for every, he has this one to one model, that every pair of shoes that someone buys, that he would give a pair of shoes to a child in need. And so, it’s this one for one model. And you know he had all these really great, this inspiration and really great idea. But he didn’t really understand completely the complexities of the population that he was working with and he’s been criticised by many people. They say well it’s really nice that you want to do this and it’s a nice charity, but you know, what are you doing to help the manufacturers down there who are now no longer selling shoes because you’re giving shoes away. And I think as time has gone by, he’s evolved and learned how to do that better. And so, a struggle for business people is that they might understand the business opportunity but not completely understand all the linkages, the social linkages that have to be tapped as well. So, he’s done kind of a nice thing to really alter his business model, and wrap more social programs, it’s not just putting shoes on kids’ feet but you know, programs for families in general in those communities and working with NGO’s in the region to better understand what the challenges are. So, I guess social workers have that, the rich depth and knowledge of the challenges, we don’t have that so much in business, and so I think that’s how you can actually use the two together to create some pretty meaningful solutions.

Tricia: So, Tim, how do we get the attention of business, say if we see a need and have a great idea?

Tim: You know, I don’t think it’s that hard anymore. Um, I think that business really understands that and one of the reasons they do, actually. I’ve had an interesting conversation with a start-up, an entrepreneur, a logistics company, so they deliver packages for other firms, and he started his own company and it was relatively small and it’s grown quickly. And I was talking to him about his CSR efforts, and his attitude as a start-up was ‘well I really don’t want to do that because I don’t want to make my employees feel like they’ve got to be involved in these projects and these programs or they’re going to be in trouble you know with us, and so I just really want my employees to do that on their own.’ And you know, I told him my sense, and you might see this as well in Australia, is that the students I teach now, they really want to be involved, they really want to be engaged. And so, I think employees have a hunger for that and so to think about how do we sell this on business, I feel that it’s a way to create more meaning in peoples’ jobs. And so maybe the catch isn’t just that there’s a benefit to society but there is a tangible benefit to the company in the fact that you’re able to recruit and retain better employees, who ultimately are more motivated, they give better service to customers so it’s a win win. And so, I guess I’m more confident that it’s less of a sell than it would’ve been before. Because before it would’ve been perceived as, simply as a cost, you know were giving something away and what are we getting? Well, we’re uh kind of giving up cash, we might get a reputation benefit but that’s sort of an intangible. I think they see the benefits as customers expect it, I think our employees expect it. And so, I think the models’ changed. So, I don’t know that it’s as tough a sell Trish as you might think.

Tricia: Do I understand it correctly; does it have a real grassroots base? Or does that depend on the approach? Like, who really identifies the problem? Or is it working with the local community?

Tim: Yeah, it’s a combination I think of both. In some cases, you know, for example that small start-up company again, it was fun to watch because I was there. He and I were having this conversation about how you know he didn’t want to make his employees be involved and like, the next minute somebody walked up to him and said ‘ you don’t know this but there’s actually this grassroot of employees and they’ve decided to meet on their own outside of work and identify some opportunities that we might be involved in the community.’ And so, you know some of its grassroots but some, you know, many companies they want to do it well and they don’t have the expertise and so they’re partnering with some non-profits that actually help them become involved. And so, some of these non-profits, their role might actually be to act as the intermediary to find a non-profit that you might work with who needs the skill set that you have.

Tricia: And a lot of, um, causes for want of a better word, are not necessarily ‘sexy’, for people to want to invest, to feel that that’s going to value add. Any cause to do with children is always very popular, but other causes, or other social issues I think is probably a better way of putting it, are not as attractive to the public or other organisations. Have you found that or is that a false perception?

Tim: Uh, I guess if I knew what maybe some of those areas were that maybe are less ‘sexy’?

Tricia: I think maybe, I don’t know I’m guessing really but, but I used to work in spinal cord injuries for example and it was very difficult to attract any funds for any event to do with spinal cord injuries unless it was about …

Tim: Yeah, so that’s actually a really good point because again, if the focus is not just a company gives money, but a company finds a way to use their core competencies in a way that helps them become a better company, and helps the recipients, the benefactors, the causes, then all the better. And so, I mean, a perfect example - there’s an American company called Nuvasive, and I only know about this because the, the entrepreneur start up, and it’s a really large company now, was one of our alums. They make really intricate instruments for spinal surgery. And so, they’ve now partnered with companies, with non-profits around the world to identify individuals who need and maybe can’t afford the kind of medical care um, that they can provide. So, they’ve set up a foundation that’s affiliated with the company, and then they will bring in, or work with a doctor in another country and a patient who’s got a series of spinal operations, and they’ll provide all the funding for that, and it’s interesting, I asked the CEO ‘why are you doing this?’ and I think that, he believes, one, that it’s a really good fit for the company, two is that, it is really, the impact on their employees, that their employees can see that it becomes very tangible, the outcome of what they do. I mean, and so it becomes, I guess again, just a tangible manifestation of their work, and so it’s not just an abstract, we’re selling products someplace, but they can actually see the benefits of what they’re doing. So, I mean, that’s sort of a long answer to say that some of the causes may not be sexy but you find a company who, that matches …

Tricia: that matches …

Tim:Then there’s a win for them in that, in that, it makes them better, it allows them to really, efficiently leverage their skills, and so maybe that is, I think, the solution.

Tricia: Tim, I wonder how important it is for companies that do this to also involve consumer opinion probably primarily, in terms of what will best meet need, but also research expertise, other knowledges to bring to that because I can think of situations where say, organisations have been formed for particular causes but it’s actually based on opinion rather than um, what might actually be helpful.

Tim: Yeah, and I wish I could you know, I knew more about that but I think you’re right, especially if a company’s thinking about devoting significant resources to something I would, I would hope that they know enough, have access to expertise that would allow them to vet what some of those areas are and I had a conversation, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Dow Chemicals, so another large Fortune 500, large, industrial company and they make chemicals, and so they don’t have a great track record in terms of sustainability. But one of the things they’re doing is actually they use CRS as a leadership training tool, and so they have some of their employees will go to, in this case, start-up companies in Africa, and work in Ghana I think in particular and use their skill set, their expertise, to help those start-up companies get started, and accelerate and so on. I bring that up in the context of my hunch is that they have a lot of people with boots on the ground in that area who have looked at these start-up companies to see are they heading in the right direction such that its worth an American, or any firm for that matter, lending their executive talent for you know, a month at a time. So, it’s a really good point. I haven’t really talked to executives about to what extent do they involve experts who help them look at the issues to decide you know, what do we do and what don’t we do.

Tricia: And of course, I’m thinking about social workers here. Tim, we’re almost out of time, any final words or messages that, that you think are important for us to hear about this topic.

Tim: I just would reiterate that there’s a well of enthusiasm about sustainability and corporate social responsibility, there’s still a lot that we have to learn. I was teaching in my ethics sustainability class, just the other day we were talking about the environmental challenges right now and global warming and a lot of our students, my hunch is they’re familiar with this 350 million parts, or 50 parts per million of carbon dioxide and they’ve heard about global warming. The words are there but I don’t think they really fully understand them. And so, we had a good conversation I found some pretty good videos, basic videos, I think there just a lot of education that still has to go on and that ties in actually to your last question about relying on experts, there’s a lot of information that’s out there that, not just companies but people, that we need to understand better the inner connections. But I’m really hopeful, and if that’s a closing point, is that there really is an energy, a drive among this next generation, with the students we’re teaching right now, who really want to do something meaningful and they just don’t see you know, as maybe I did or my parents did that a career is just a place where you got a pay cheque, their lives are so intertwined with their companies and their careers they want to do something valuable, something beyond just making money for somebody else, and so they’re really interested in creating purpose for themselves and then adding meaning to their work. And that’s a win for them. It’s a win for companies. It’s a win for communities and society as a whole. So, I guess that would be my closing thought, is I’m hopeful that things are changing, and conversations are starting now that we wouldn’t have been having even a decade ago.

Tricia: Tim, thank you so much for being on.

Tim: It was fun Tricia, thank you.

[Musical outro 22:49 to END].

Interview ENDS: 23:13