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Philanthropy Not the Most Important Aspect of CSR, Survey Finds

(June 5, 2006) A majority of Americans believe that the most important aspect of corporate social responsibility is treating employees fairly, according to a new survey released by the National Consumers League and Fleishman-Hillard.

Respondents ranked treating employees well ahead of philanthropy and environmental stewardship, two staples of traditional corporate social responsibility (CSR) model. Seventy-six percent of Americans agree that to be socially responsible, companies should place employee salary and wage increases above making charitable contributions.

The national opinion poll found that consumer attitudes about CSR are somewhat different than those of corporations and established theories and models.

“The study findings are especially welcome because they demonstrate that the brand of CSR that most corporations favor simply isn’t enough to impress most consumers,” said Mal Warwick, chair of the Social Venture Network and co-author of Values-Driven Business: How to Change the World, Make Money, and Have Fun, in a press release about the survey. “The consumer attitudes reported in this study reflect more closely an approach to social responsibility called the ‘triple bottom line,’ in which people, planet, and profit are balanced. Rather than detract from the traditional bottom line, this approach, requiring policies that actively favor the key stakeholders in a business — its employees, its customers, its suppliers, its community, and its environment, as well as its owners — makes that business more competitive.”

Despite the findings, AFP President and CEO Paulette V. Maehrara, CFRE, CAE, doesn’t expect corporate philanthropy to necessarily drop because of these views. “It’s quite natural to think that the public would want a company to treat its employees well,” she said. “However, it’s definitely not an ‘either-or’ situation. Socially responsible companies can treat their employees well and continue their philanthropic programs, and I think the public will continue to look favorably on companies who contribute to charitable organizations.”

Low Marks on CSR

Perhaps because of these different views, most respondents don’t think corporations are doing a good job of being socially responsible. Only 21 percent give U.S. corporations top marks for being socially responsible. When asked to rate how companies are performing compared with two to three years ago, only 30 percent believe that companies are doing a “somewhat better” or “a lot better” job of being socially responsible.

Another reason for the low marks may be the increasing use of the Internet by individuals to learn on their own the extent to which a company is or is not being socially responsible. Almost half of the respondents (47 percent) say they have used the Internet for such a purpose, and 53 percent believe that their own online research is one of the most credible means by which to shape their opinions on deciding whether U.S. companies are being socially responsible.

“These survey findings indicate that as the American public continues to refine its definition of corporate social responsibility and gain empowerment through online resources in their new role as activists for social change, companies, academics, and interest groups must re-evaluate the criteria they have established in this arena,” said Paul Argenti, professor of Corporate Communication at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, in a press release about the survey.  “Corporations must engage in a new level of dialogue that resonates with stakeholders' personal values. They also will have to increase transparency and adopt a more integrated approach to monitoring and influencing the online communications shaping their reputations.”

About the Survey

In 2005, Fleishman-Hillard partnered with the National Consumers League (NCL) to conduct a benchmark survey that would assess consumer attitudes toward corporate social responsibility as well as their behaviors regarding CSR. The survey also tracked the role that media and technology play in informing people about what companies are doing to be socially responsible.  

In the first quarter of 2006, the professional interviewing service Western Wats conducted a quantitative survey with 800 U.S. adults nationwide through telephone interviews, averaging 30 minutes in length. The sampling error for the survey results reported is plus or minus two to four percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.

Fleishman-Hillard, based in St. Louis, Mo., is an international public relations firm with offices around the world.

The National Consumers League, based in Washington, D.C., is the oldest consumer advocacy organization in the U.S. and works to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the U.S. and abroad.

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