Who has the social responsibility portfolio in your company: a young turk, a safe affirmative action appointee, or one of the old guard awaiting retirement? If social responsibility is seen as corporate charity, all you need is an able administrator. If it seen as something deeper – a mutually rewarding relationship with your society – you will also need a social vision.

Your social vision is your contribution (beyond taxes – and more controlled in spend) to a better life for all. It is also a potent marketing weapon that allows you to strengthen your stakeholder relationships & brand. How do you come up with a strong social vision? Think in circles.


Circle 1: Your Employees
Research in America, conducted over the last ten years, has come up with another blindingly obvious revelation. We know that loyal customers create corporate profits. But what creates loyal customers? Loyal staff. As charity begins at home, so social vision starts with your employees. Does your share-scheme include the tea-lady who has been with you for 10 years, as well as the MBA who hopped aboard last month? Do you have training schemes, an AIDS policy, an in-house crèche? Are you seen as a corporation that values self-esteem, or as a manipulative employer, trampling on dignity for the sake of a buck?

At Rosenbluth International, America’s premier travel agency for business-people, they say that “the customer comes second”. As Hal Rosenbluth explains, “we treat our front-line employees well, and they treat the customers well”. When you see the appalling levels of service across South Africa, you may reflect how those service-givers are being treated.


Circle 2: your Customers
You know your market. You know they respond to more than advertising messages. The wearer of Levi jeans wants to do the socially responsible thing & applaud the company’s stance against child labour in Bangladesh. Likewise, Nedbank credit card holders can feel good about lunch in Sandton Square because they are saving a hippo or sending a South African athlete to the Olympics.

Kelloggs in Australia has an annual promotion in which a few cents of every packet bought goes to finance a child emergency help-line. Most of us want to be on the side of the angels. The product or service that allows us to, without obviously costing anything, has a strong advantage.


Circle 3: The Peer Group
The Tokyo answer to the Sydney Opera House is Suntory Hall, sponsored by a Japanese conglomerate founded on spirits, wine and beer. As well as catering for music-lovers, Suntory has a Museum of Art, with over 2000 works by traditional Japanese artists. This cultural largesse benefits the brand by appealing to an elite target market. Why were music and art chosen? The Suntory mission statement gives a very Japanese answer: “Harmony is not a word limited to the world of music. It also describes an essential component in the creation of our universe an interweaving of people and things. At Suntory, harmony is basic to the Company’s operations and its corporate mission to provide the products that enrich people’s lives.”

In South Africa, Rand Merchant Bank (RMB) has a high profile in the “Business Against Crime” initiative. This bonds them with their peers and opens doors that lead from social justice to new business opportunities.

On a personal level, a small contribution of my time to a community based AIDS initiative led, a couple of years later, to two new clients. If each South African corporation allowed, on company time, each employee to give 20 hours a year to a worthwhile cause, the country would be far better off; and so, by networking and social awareness, would the companies.


Circle 4: Society
The Socially Responsible Banking Fund, started by Vermont National Bank, uses investors deposits for loans in areas like low-cost housing and dual bottom line businesses (companies that have a financial and social bottom line; preferably run by women, or underprivileged minorities.) The fund has attracted more new investments than any other fund the bank offers; its bad debt is very low, the investors enjoy a good return and the bank has won international acclaim. Meanwhile, in the inner cities of Vermont, thousands of lives are being uplifted.

An American entrepreneur and philanthropist once said “you can’t do business in a society that’s burning”. On the other hand, helping society, with the right checks and balances, is a profitable business opportunity.


Circle 5: The Environment
Ben & Jerry’s make delicious ice-cream. But there is a problem: ice-cream waste is environmentally unfriendly. Ben & Jerry found a solution. Pigs love ice-cream slop (every flavour it seems, except choc-chip mint). Although there were no pigs anywhere near their ice-ream factories. Ben & Jerry were unfazed. They provided soft loans to local farmers on condition they started piggeries. They also provided the main course and dessert. The results: Ben & Jerry do not pollute the environment, the pigs cannot believe their luck, local farmers enjoy new revenue streams, and eating ice-cream becomes a socially responsible thing to do.

Most social visions impact upon more than one circle – some impact on all five. The good ones start with the first circle and target at least one other. The bottom line, like the Vermont National Bank recognizes, is two bottom lines: social upliftment and financial returns. You can do better, by doing good.