Corporate social responsibility looks a whole lot different now than it did a few years ago. Back then, the emphasis was on responsibility -- look at all the good things we're doing! -- and on corporate, since so much of its DNA was based on business practices and funded by corporate largess. Lavish one-off benefit events with five-figure price tags paid for by sponsors such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers? That feels as 2007 as that bright, shiny new skyscraper sitting empty in Dubai.
Now the focus is on social. Think about it: In 2010, social networks are central in our lives. Our networks have been redefined based on our voice power -- it's not about whom we can seek advice from over coffee but about whom we can influence online. These communities of our own creation are now who we know and how we reach people.
Along those lines, social media has done more to promote causes, generate awareness and raise funds than any tool before it. Its advantage is that social action is involved at the ready. People can get involved in ways that are immediate and meaningful. The bar to enter is lowered, and the process has been democratized: You don't have to pony up $100 for a benefit ticket; you just have to use a tool you're already using, such as Twitter or your cell phone, to make a microdonation or to spread the word. The Red Cross raised more than $5 million for Haiti through text message in the first two days.
This is how real-time dialogue builds around causes. Stories evolve with communal support, and people come together around them. Now, with so many people as free agents, causes have become the new clubs and arguably even the new celebrities. Want proof? Check out @socialedge, @kiva, @billshore or @ventureneer, or communities such as WiserEarth.org, Change.org and Care2.com.
I'm not suggesting we ditch the corporate altogether. But companies must adopt small, meaningful, real-time social media practices, too. Transparency and accountability are the watchwords right now, after all. Companies should encourage their employees to become involved with their causes and to join the social media dialogue about them. Their networks can bring the news out authentically and meaningfully.
Mashable had an insightful post about this a few months ago, explaining that the bottom line for companies must take in profit, people and planet. "Society is starting to push past awareness and into action," wrote Melissa Jun Rowley. "Companies are evolving from their reactive states, and moving toward more pro-active approaches." CSR is no longer about what companies aren't doing wrong but about what they are doing right.
Her post explained three clear points from the Justmeans Social Media for Sustainability conference, held in San Francisco last fall, about what businesses gain by using social media for CSR: They get to know their constituents, influence them as citizens and get their good work known in a way that feels far more authentic than a press release.
Companies can learn how by paying attention to organizations dedicated to using the social Web for good. The New York Observer reported last spring about Social Media for Social Change, which is dedicated to using, in its words, "the tools that are helping businesses and companies grow to do something more than make a buck...we want them to make a difference." Last March, SM4SC organized Stay In and Help Us, an online fundraiser for City Harvest, a New York City nonprofit that collects extra food from restaurants to feed the homeless. Participants spent a Saturday night at home (while using Twitter and Tumblr to follow one another) and donated to City Harvest what they would have spent going out. SM4SC raised about $1,400 in six hours, with virtually no overhead. The event points out another advantage of social media: Unlike real-world fundraising events, it transcends geography. Only two of the 38 Stay In and Help Us donors actually lived in New York.
Even social media skeptics are taking note. In an otherwise curmudgeonly post on Harvard Business Review's website last month, Tom Davenport praised a new venture called Next Agenda, which mixes face-to-face meetings, video and Google Wave to address big problems such as clean energy. Davenport wrote, "The key seems to be involving not everyone, but people who have high levels of both interest and expertise." And as many other virtual communities have shown, the number of people with interest and expertise is great, and when they're united online, their power to do good is vast.
The new CSR isn't limited to idealistic individuals or savvy nonprofits. Corporate can still be part of CSR, as some forward-thinking companies are rising to the challenge and taking advantage of the ways social media can level the playing field. One example is Pepsi, a perennial No. 2 in its market, whose "bet" on social media was called "staggeringly large" by Mediaweek last month.
Pepsi skipped the Super Bowl for the first time in 23 years, investing instead in a social media program called Refresh Everything. It will funnel $20 million into charities by giving away grants to fund what it calls great ideas that will refresh the world. Visitors to the Refresh Project site can submit proposals to apply for grants, then other users can vote on the ideas. Pepsi execs told Mediaweek they believed in the program because "it rested on four big trends: crowdsourcing, doing good, sharing and transparency."
It remains to be seen how this initiative will benefit Pepsi's bottom line. But in any case, it's going to make a significant investment in socially responsible causes. And not just its own: Soon after Refresh Everything was announced, Pepsi's archrival launched its own CSR project. Every time someone visits Coke's fan page or makes a donation, the Facebook campaign donates $1 to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
This is good news for everyone involved. It's crucial for brands to get their fans (on Facebook and in real life) behind their causes. As Tim Sanders stated in the book Saving the World at Work, studies show that when people witness or hear about an act of compassion, they are more likely to emulate it. Studies have found that people are hardwired to get off on giving -- we want to do good. CSR in 2010 means giving people unexpected opportunities to do just that.
Follow Marian Salzman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mariansalzman