Anxiety about the gap between rich and poor has spread to Asia.
Rising joblessness led South Koreans to replace the dominant Saenuri Party in April. Even in the Philippines, with the healthiest economic growth since 1970, voters rejected the ruling elite in favor of the anti-establishment Rodrigo Duterte, who campaigned on profanity-laced vows to cut poverty. Yet not all solutions to social problems are political. Around the world, companies are seeing community engagement as not only in their own interest but also as an important part of their role in society.
Donations already play a large role. Corporate philanthropy has been on the rise for a decade and continues to grow. In 2012, 66% of all charitable giving in China came from corporations, as estimated by the Conference Board, a non-profit business research group.
India now requires top companies to pay 2 percent of after-tax income into certified philanthropic activities. According to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, such giving totaled Rs 8,347.47 crore in the last year, about $1.5 billion USD. We do not know if the money is being spent wisely or efficiently, but it is clear that the bottom line is massive and will trickle through to increase the impact of many charitable programs throughout India.
Companies can help in at least four other ways, starting with sharing technical expertise. Some companies are already using their skills alongside financial resources to build capacity and bring about sustainable change. In India, the Axis Bank Foundation (ABF) opened a strategic partnership with Dilasa Sanstha, an organization devoted to helping farmers increase production and earn stable livelihoods. The ABF helped Dilasa expand rural credit, strengthen internal budgeting and create an evaluation system. For the first time, Dilasa could collect critical data on beneficiary income, household assets, education levels, diet and investment plans.
Similarly, support from Khazanah Berhad, Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, helped improve the capabilities of Mercy Malaysia, a medical response group active after natural disasters. Khazanah helped Mercy develop systems that assist it in managing people and resources and deploying them efficiently to disaster zones. The partnership has helped Mercy become an internationally acclaimed provider of disaster assistance.
Social delivery organizations may be non-profits, but they need to think more like businesses. To maximize their impact, they should be concerned with transparent accounting, financial forecasting, strategic planning, organizational management and development and a host of other skills that have traditionally been labeled as business skills. The private sector has plenty of these skills. In both of these cases, the companies provided financial resources and technical resources. They committed to the social delivery organizations for the longer term.
Another way companies can help is through shared value initiatives. Shared value, a term coined in 2006 by Harvard professors Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, is a strategy in which companies bring economic value to themselves while addressing a social need. In the Philippines, Manila Water figured out how to decrease siphoning and protect the pipeline so that clean, cheaper water reached those in the poorest districts of Manila. This successful project improved water access for the poor and increased Manila Water’s bottom line.
Uniqlo owner Fast Retail provides another example of shared value. With garment factories in Bangladesh, Fast Retail knows first hand the difficult circumstances facing many workers there. Uniqlo has launched a line of products inspired by traditional designs. Proceeds from these clothes go toward continuing education for women working in their factories.
Not surprisingly, there is considerable excitement around the notion of shared value. When the company and the community both prosper, the initiatives are more sustainable. Still, shared value initiatives are new globally and very new in Asia, and we can expect to see much more innovation of this kind.
A third strategy for community engagement is when companies work on their own. They believe and with some justification, that they have the skills to deliver a social good more efficiently than by working through an NGO. Shopping mall operator SM Prime Holdings in the Philippines is building clinics and schools, through its BDO Foundation, in the typhoon-ravaged areas of Leyte and Samar. The Reliance Foundation, the philanthropic arm of India’s Reliance Industries, carries out work through its own rural development, health and education initiatives.
Lastly, in some cases, corporations find it useful to develop alliances to bring about change. In China, corporate leaders have come together to create the SEE Foundation to work on environmental issues and the Ai You Foundation to provide medical aid to children. The Philippines’ largest conglomerate, the Ayala Group, and the telecommunications firm PLDT together created the Philippine Disaster Recovery Foundation to build a disaster operations center to coordinate the private sector relief efforts during major disasters.
How can companies evaluate whether they are doing enough? There are several key questions to ask.
First, how robust is your volunteer program? According to a Deloitte survey, 90% of HR managers believe that volunteering aids in building an employee’s leadership skills and according to a Price Waterhouse Coopers study, employees are less likely to resign if they feel engaged with their companies including through volunteer programs. A robust volunteer program can assist local charities while at the same time boosting employee company pride and loyalty.
Second, what subject areas best align with a company’s strengths and goals? Community engagement is much more sustainable when aligned with key competencies. It makes sense for Uniqlo to be utilizing clothing to engage with the community or for Axis Bank to focus on livelihoods and financial inclusion. Not everything a company does must be aligned with its interests and strengths, but it is helpful to know what these are and how they can be utilized to benefit the community.
Third, tone from the top is critical but innovation at all levels of the company is equally important. Employees have ties to the community and understand the needs of those living there. Creating programs that allow some latitude in addressing community concerns can harness this knowledge.
The rise in corporate involvement is clear. There is no question about whether a company should engage with the community, the only question is how. With their technical expertise, shared values and productive partnerships, Asia’s corporations are poised to be constructive, long-term stakeholders in the region’s continued growth.
Ruth Shapiro is chief executive of the Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society, an organization dedicated to facilitating excellence in philanthropy.
This article ran originally in the Nikkei Asian Review.