Thursday, 6 January 2011

Business for Social Responsibility (BSR): more than just a love in?

I vividly remember the first BSR conference I attended. It was 2003. A three-day corporate responsibility jamboree in the subterranean conference hall of an anonymous Los Angeles hotel.

Fun? Not exactly. An ethical clothing catwalk was about as risqué as it got. Otherwise, it was mostly PowerPoint presentations and breakout sessions.

Yet I left on a high. Less for the specifics (too much podium time and too little nuts-and-bolts, I seem to recall), but more for the bonding between fellow believers. Where else would whispered conversations about supply chain metrics fill the corridors?

Founded in 1996, San Francisco-based Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) has established a name for itself as North America’s premier practitioner membership group. It has a tested ability to convene and convoke. But do such organisations need to do more than provide a love-in for lonely corporate responsibility practitioners?

Very much so, argues expert commentator Mallen Baker in Ethical Corporation’s latest issue. Based on an extended interview with current president Aron Cramer, Baker’s profile of the US membership group shows how BSR has gradually broadened its reach.

First is geography. Before, 95% of BSR staff used to be based in the group’s San Francisco HQ. Now only about 40% are, with the remainder mostly in Asia. As business looks East for future opportunities, BSR has gone with it. A wise move.

Second come services. It’s not all about cuddly get-togethers any more. BSR has branched out into consultancy services in a big way, developing particular expertise in areas such as stakeholder engagement, supply chain management and reporting.

It is also getting its hands dirty. It has undertaken on-the-ground projects in more than 75 countries, including direct work in factories in China, Mongolia and Peru.

Much of BSR’s influence remains in its power to convene. The focal point has not shifted from the annual conference, but that too has changed. According to Cramer, the audience is more international in scope and more varied in function (lawyers and communications experts are just some of those found treading the floorboards). The content of the parallel sessions is also more detailed and action-focused than previously (good to hear).

Corporate responsibility (CR) membership groups are not without their struggles. In tough times, subscriptions are often the first to go. Even in the good times, membership fees rarely cover costs. Hence, BSR’s move into consultancy.

It is the role of groups such as BSR to keep moving the agenda forward. Companies need to be challenged if they are to continually improve their performance. BSR can cajole, where NGOs might simply criticise. That in itself is a powerful contribution. As long as they keep pushing at the boundaries of the debate, their relevance will remain intact. And hopefully their internal finances too.


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