Down To Business: When Good Corporate Deeds Yield Good Returns - InformationWeek

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8/7/2008
05:45 PM
Rob Preston
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Down To Business: When Good Corporate Deeds Yield Good Returns

How is your company practicing its corporate social responsibility?

Social responsibility is big business. IBM goes so far as to call it "the next engine of growth for companies." Two-thirds of the 250 executives who responded to a survey by IBM's Institute for Business Value said they demand that their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities drive revenue, and more than half think their efforts are delivering a competitive advantage.

Of course, CSR isn't just an extracurricular activity. Every company has some basic social responsibilities: Adhere to laws, regulations, and principles of decency; deliver quality products; be transparent in business dealings and reporting. Beyond the basics, IBM defines CSR as the way "companies do good in the world, benefiting society through their own economic, environmental, and social actions."

Among technology vendors, CSR activities tend to revolve around, well, technology: training and education programs to build the next-gen tech workforce and user base; system and software donations to schools and other institutions; green and low-cost computing initiatives that aim to create new markets. Altruism meets capitalism--nothing wrong with that. In fact, it would be irresponsible for public companies to get behind economic, environmental, and social causes that don't serve shareholder interests in some way.

But not all CSR efforts generate hard returns. It's tough to measure the ROI of good public relations, for instance. Among Microsoft's straightforward CSR programs are those involving technology training and donations, but its work in the Puget Sound region and with various disaster-relief efforts is tied less to the bottom line. Privately held analytics software vendor SAS Institute and its founder, Jim Goodnight, are active in funding and assisting a variety of education endeavors, from the vocation-specific Institute for Advanced Analytics to much more general public and private school programs. IBM has created a Corporate Service Corps, whose 600 company-financed volunteers will do one-month stints spreading their technical expertise with organizations in hot emerging markets.

One particularly impressive social initiative is the Emergency Management and Research Institute, started in April 2005 by Satyam Computer Services founder B. Ramalinga Raju and his brothers with $50 million of their own money. EMRI's 1-0-8 service began with a fleet of 30 ambulances responding to medical, police, and fire emergencies across 50 towns in the state of Andhra Pradesh. The service is going national, with about 800 ambulances now responding to 4,500 emergency calls a day across three Indian states covering 147 million people.

The plan is for EMRI to oversee 11,000 ambulances, 25 call centers, five research and training centers, and 100,000 personnel to serve 1.1 billion people nationwide by 2010. Satyam is the integrator for the massive network, working with health care providers, academic institutions, and a host of other partners. Eight Indian governments now fund 90% of the program, though EMRI is privately managed, led by CEO Venkat Changavalli. Satyam established a venture with Cisco in October to deploy emergency response systems in other countries, on a for-profit basis.

In a country where CSR is more about "cleansing sins" and building brands than doing good, Raju's public service vision was refreshing, says Changavalli, a self-professed technology neophyte who hails from the cosmetics industry. Ultimately, EMRI's offerings play directly into Satyam's software, services, and management strengths, but the institute was clearly conceived as a social mission rather than a vehicle to drive Satyam business.

We want to hear what others are doing. Whether you're a tech vendor or customer, write to us at the e-mail address below about your CSR programs--the good they're doing as well as the returns they're delivering to your organization. We plan to profile the five or six most intriguing and effective ones.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief
[email protected]

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

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