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CSR: a profession that’s coming of age

November 2011

The Corporate Responsibility Group has decided to create a formal body for CSR professionals. Is this a natural progression for the new generation of CSR practitioners?    

The CSR salary surveys of the last three years appear to have confirmed the sector’s arrival in the mainstream of business. Practitioners were less likely to find the CSR agenda resisted by board members focused on a narrow definition of the bottom line. Indeed, companies across the world were becoming more likely to embrace their responsibilities as corporate citizens, believing that doing so made business sense.

CSR executives were generally well-paid, increasingly involved at the centre of strategic planning and, all in all, contented with their lot. According to the 2009 Corporate Responsibility Salary Survey – published by Ethical Performance, Acona and Acre – 97% of the 350 respondents said they would recommend a career in CSR.  

This position appears to be stable. The figures changed little the following year, even though the 2010 survey had ‘gone global’ and no longer focused solely on the UK. In the report’s foreword, head of CSR at KPMG Europe Mike Kelly wrote that, finally, “we practitioners can claim that CSR is a profession, rather than a cottage industry”.  

It also appears that economic uncertainty has done little to undermine the position of CSR professionals since the 2010 survey. Quite the opposite, according to Paul Burke, senior partner at Acona. “From what I’ve seen, recession has not had a detrimental impact on CSR or, at least, not in a financial sense,” he said. “Instead, it seems to have had a positive impact as it has forced the professionals to think hard about the costs associated with CSR activities within their organisations and link them more closely with business objectives.

“R&D tends to get cut at the first sign of trouble, but that’s not happened here. There’s a huge pull on professionals into CSR and it’s still a vibrant jobs market. CSR is a relatively small sector but it’s without the context of retrenchment that other sectors have faced.”

So, CSR professionals are not only in demand, but their expertise is becoming more valued by their senior management teams. And this recognition is happening just as a debate rages within parts of the ‘profession’ that goes to the heart of what the CSR enterprise is about.

Some commentators question the value of its achievements to date and, given the pressing issues of climate change, poverty and human rights, believe CSR needs a much more demanding set of aims (See Wayne Visser on the ‘age of greed’, page 4). With such issues at play, it is hardly surprising that many feel the ‘profession’ needs a voice, identity and some unifying standards.

Enter the UK-based Corporate Responsibility Group (CRG), which has decided to establish a professional body for CSR practitioners after many years of debating the issue.

According to CRG board member Jennie Galbraith, who is also International Sustainability Manager at British American Tobacco, the new organisation is on schedule to be formally launched by the middle of next year. It has been given the working title CRGPro, but this will change – “it sounds like a bottle of vitamins”, said Jennie.  

Until this year, the opponents of a formal body held sway. They believed the range of areas covered by the CSR ‘profession’ was so wide that a single body could not adequately accommodate them. There was also a fear that a body would erect barriers to entry based on qualifications or technical expertise when, in fact, the sector has routinely recruited people from other sectors. Instead, says Jennie, the new body’s focus will be on competencies and not on degrees, MBAs or diplomas, “and so the arguments disappear”.

She said: “The scope of the CSR profession is vast, from scientific experts in climate change to community engagement. We’re looking at a professional structure based on competencies rather than technical expertise.

“A long time ago, the CRG developed the Corporate Responsibility Competencies Framework. Responsibility for this was handed to the Department of Trade & Industry and then to Business in the Community (BITC), but we now have agreement on using this as a way of providing professional accreditation. We’ll be looking at evidence and experience against these competencies, and we’re in the early stages of mapping these so we can signpost to courses to support continuing professional development.”

Kimberley Watts-Fitzsimmons moved to her CSR role from outside the sector and supports the establishment of a professional body. She has a degree in international business and worked in administration and sales before applying for the position of corporate responsibility manager at Yell Group.

She said: “The company was looking for someone with business rather than CSR experience. I’ve been able to make the role my own at the same time as developing CSR within Yell’s business strategy.

“Many practitioners can feel isolated. Within the majority of organisations, CSR managers work alone or in very small teams. I have always found it very useful to meet regularly with like-minded professionals facing the same challenges. A professional body will ensure regular contact with people in similar roles as well as recognition for the role practitioners play within organisations.”

Though her own senior management team “understands the benefit of having robust CSR programmes”, Kimberley says the harsh economic climate has put many businesses and their corproate responsibility priorities under pressure. “This can be a real challenge, but all practitioners understand the balance of business versus community benefit for their organisation. That’s what makes the job so different and interesting. It allows us to be innovative and strategic in all we do.”

Paul Burke is a former CRG board member and also favours the creation of a professional body. He suggests that the changing business client base and practitioner profile makes formal professionalisation inevitable.

Speaking from his consultant’s viewpoint, Paul says: “Buyers are becoming much more sophisticated. In the past, when companies were starting out in CSR, it was easy to sell services because they didn’t know what they wanted. Now, both existing and new clients are much clearer about what they want.

“They are taking a more sensible view of the level of resources they need to achieve against their CSR objectives, and are clearer on whether to buy in expertise from outside the organisation and when to go for the internal option. I don’t have much contact with clients in Europe or the US, but I would be surprised if there was a massive difference there given the mature approaches that global businesses are taking. Theirs is a measured approach as a result of a deeper level of resource and knowledge.”

Meanwhile, while the CSR pioneers ten to 15 years ago might have struggled to get their messages onto the corporate agenda, the environment in which they operate now, and the nature of the CSR executive itself, is very different.

Said Paul: “It is absolutely true that many CSR professionals see their work as a vocation. They may not be card-carrying members of Greenpeace or Amnesty International, but almost all the people I work with have deep-seated, clear views on social and environmental issues. This doesn’t mean they carry these views into how they deal with clients, but they are taking a more balanced view.”

This cultural change, in which CSR is an integral element of a corporate strategy, is almost certainly another factor in the growing call for a professional body.

Jennie said: “I’ve spoken to loads of people who were for and against the body and the question that kept cropping up was the credibility of CSR both within the profession and inside the practitioners’ own organisations. Many felt that this was a maturing profession that does not have the credibility of other sectors of management.

“For instance, there is anecdotal evidence of people moving into CSR roles without having the skills or experience to set up the necessary programmes or initiatives, and there was a misconception in some quarters that CSR was about community investment. We need to engender respect and credibility in the profession and continuing professional development is part of that process.”

It might have taken many years of discussion for the CRG to reach this decision, but this is merely the start of another journey. To start with, the CRG is seeking funding from partners to kick-start the process. Jennie and her colleagues also need to decide which courses they are going to ‘signpost’ for professionals. She said: “Creating a robust and credible process is not something that happens over night. Deciding on the courses, for instance, could take months.”

Given the task at hand, the CRG is focusing on the profession in the UK, at least initially. “We are in contact with other organisations in the States but,” said Jennie, “at the moment, we are focusing on the UK. Let’s walk before we can run.

“We are very clear on objectives and purpose. We are able to put a stake in the ground and say ‘we are doing this’.” The target, she said, is to bring some structure, common standards and sense of community to the CSR field, “instead of [being] a loose group of professionals that get together occasionally every few years”. Watch this space.




Corporate Responsibility Group | Global | CSR

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