The Nonpartisan Agenda of Corporate Social Responsibility

12/02/2011 02:24 pm ET | Updated Feb 01, 2012

"You're placing corporate executives on nonprofit boards?" exclaimed the senior program officer of a prominent and well endowed national foundation. He looked at me with horror. Then he spit out, "But they're Republicans!"

This was in 2002, nearly a decade into my career in providing strategic corporate social responsibility (CSR) consulting to global corporations, training and placing hundreds of business executives on nonprofit boards, and consulting to the boards of universities, healthcare institutions and a wide variety of global, national, and regional organizations.

Thankfully, that binary view of businesses versus nonprofits is fading. Today, companies are engaging with social and environmental causes that align with their corporate purposes. This is corporate social responsibility. For some companies, for example, eliminating poverty in emerging countries is good for business; more prosperous communities will become prospective customers. For other companies, it's in their best interests to ensure the world's long term renewable supply of water. Through a mutuality of interests, nonprofits are gaining vigorous new support for missions that will improve local communities and the world. Partisan politics are irrelevant.

Additionally, as a vital new element of corporate social responsibility, many companies are encouraging and supporting their executives to serve on nonprofit boards. Regardless of political affiliation, people join nonprofit boards to solve social and environmental problems that are personally meaningful. Poverty, education, healthcare, jobs, economic development, arts and culture, and the environment are some of the many issues that matter to people.

Imagine tens of thousands of corporate executives properly trained and purposefully matched to boards throughout the U.S. and the world. Consider the value of such board members' strategic acumen, as well as expertise, including finance, accounting, fundraising, law, organizational development, communications, public relations, media, government relations, and so on. They bring diverse perspectives and backgrounds as well as new networks and resources.

Companies recognize the leadership development value for their professionals who engage on boards. Board service is the ultimate experience in ethics, accountability, leadership, group dynamics, and crisis management and communications. And what an extraordinary way for a corporate CEO to build her executive team's expertise in education, healthcare, poverty, and the environment. A group with this range of knowledge, gained through experiential board service, is well equipped to lead the corporation in today's competitive, global marketplace.

Individuals who are properly matched to boards are highly rewarded for their service through personal fulfillment, professional development, learning of key global and community issues, and the expansion of their business and social networks. One of the greatest perks of my job is hearing stories from candidates whom I place...stories of discovery, delight, and achievement. For many, board service becomes one of the most cherished engagements of their lives.

Old school: Businesses and nonprofits held biases about each other's politics and ideologies. Although some companies made charitable contributions to get their names on plaques, and a few CEOs served on nonprofit boards for the status, most companies looked down on nonprofits and kept their distance. Nonprofits were fine with that. It was a partisan world.

New school: Businesses engage with nonprofit causes for mutual interests, and people throughout the executive ranks from companies of many sizes dedicate themselves to board service to advance missions to improve the world. Businesses and nonprofits are sharing practices that improve both environments. CSR is about common cause.