Regular readers of CSR Asia will know that I am no fan of CSR awards. If a company does CSR effectively then it does it because there is a strong business case to do so. Companies recognise that what they do will be seen by their stakeholders as meaningful and impactful.
But just in case you do need awards – more often than not to convince senior executives and PR departments that CSR is important – then please make sure that awards are being run by organisations that have credibility and who follow a sound methodology for evaluating the basis for the award.
The problem is that we now have too many CSR awards and some of these are being handed out by organisations with little credibility in the CSR space and who often themselves do not even understand CSR.
Here is a “hypothetical” scenario based on examples of what I have seen over the last couple of years, involving awarding organisations with little or no background in CSR. Here is how a typical fake CSR award might work:
- Someone in the awarding organisation looks around the region for projects associated with large companies (and deep pockets) and linked to CSR.
- The large company then receives an email saying that their CSR project has been nominated for an award. The company is asked to provide further details of the project and is asked to pay an application processing fee (let’s say the fee is in the order to US$400).
- The applications are then send off to a judging panel, which are to do an evaluation and make decisions about who gets the awards. The criteria upon which the assessment is made is not made clear and applicants are told that they will not be told exactly how the panel arrived at its decision for reasons of confidentiality.
- After some time the company receives another email saying that is will be getting an (unspecified) award at the event and is asked to pay the registration fee for the event (let’s say another US$400).
- Once the company registers it then receives a request to sponsor the event on top of the registration fee.
- Most of the companies who attend the event get some sort of award (even if it is a “runner-up”).
Companies end up paying to receive awards from an organisation with little credibility. Unfortunately, it seems to be a practice that works on some companies. Such awards end up being pretty worthless if stakeholders have never even heard of the awarding organisation.
Of course the media attention often attached to the giving and receiving of awards can be good PR. And there is nothing wrong with that. But in fact a number of CSR managers I have talked to see the value of awards not in terms of PR but in terms of how it can help them within the organisation. It seems that senior management often like receiving awards and internally therefore it helps to leverage greater support (and even bigger budgets) for CSR activities. One of the more hidden benefits of awards might therefore be in the internal communications that they can help with, more so than in external communications.
In addition, awards can be a great motivator for staff involved with CSR activities, especially with volunteering activities. We all like to be recognised for doing a good job and that external seal of approval can add to staff morale and commitment.
In fact, companies that have a long term commitment to CSR and communicate progress in an open, modest and honest way to their stakeholders don’t actually need awards. People in the CSR community know who is doing the good stuff and know who is merely playing a shallow PR game and scratching the surface of philanthropy.
We also have to consider how CSR awards are being judged and who precisely are the judges? Judging panels need to be representative, reflect expertise and be rotational. They need to reflect the stakeholder base that the CSR award is connected to. Judges need to be credible and not represent vested interests therefore.
The final aspect of any awards that I feel is important links to transparency of the process. Good awards need to have behind them a credible process and all decision-making needs to be transparent. Judges need to be committed to spending time explaining their reasoning and providing constructive feedback to the applicants.
So, if awards are credible and transparent then I think there is a role for them. But that role may well be more about internal communications rather than external communications. However, we should recognise that companies with good CSR strategies do not actually need awards because they understand the underlying business case for CSR. They do not do CSR for the awards although occasionally they might help.
But I would also like to lay out a challenge for those making CSR awards in the future. How can we make awards better reflect the views of a wider range of stakeholders? Is it possible to build in a process of stakeholder engagement to awards processes rather than simply relying on a judging panel? That is going to be a much more difficult process, of course, but it might just lead to some interesting outcomes.
Richard Welford is chairman of CSR Asia, a provider of training, research and consultancy services on sustainable business practices in Asia.