What Makes an Outstanding CSR Program?

Corning’s Future Innovator Competition is designed to leverage the company’s core competen-cies while helping develop the next generation of technology specialists. Photo: Corning

Some pointers for multinationals looking to improve their community involvement.

Many companies recognize the importance of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) but are still daunted by the challenges involved in doing it well. A lot can go wrong every step of the way – from picking a cause, to choosing partners, to long-term execution.

Here are some practical tips for multinationals doing philanthropy and social outreach in Taiwan, based on the advice of experts and the experiences of companies with successful CSR programs.

1. Concentrate on what you’re good at.

According to the 2017 Taiwan CSR Overview and Trend Analysis conducted by CSRone Reporting, the Sinyi School of the National Chengchi University College of Commerce, and PwC Taiwan, the 458 companies in Taiwan for which data was collected reported spending an average of NT$40 million on community assistance each year, or 0.82% of their total income before tax. But carrying out a meaningful CSR plan is no longer just about writing a fat check to a worthy cause.

Traditional philanthropy is beginning to evolve into community investment. Increasingly companies are focusing on causes that align with their corporate goals and strategy, leveraging their core competencies. The Taiwan operations of Microsoft, Corning Display Technologies, and Citi are among the multinationals leading the way.

Microsoft Philanthropies, an organization within Microsoft charged with expanding the company’s commitment to social causes, has embraced the motto of “moving technology forward without leaving people behind.”

Microsoft’s commitment to promoting technology in Taiwan has enabled 15,000 students to experience an Hour of Code, a 60-minute introduction to computer science; 700 educators to be trained to teach computer science; and 4,100 staff members of non-profit organizations to be trained to run IT apps.

“We are the domain expert on technology,” says Vincent Shih, Microsoft’s Assistant General Counsel. “So that’s what we need to stick to in order to have sustainable and systematic progress in our CSR efforts.”

President Tsai Ing-wen looks in on a Microsoft educational program. Photo: Microsoft

In Corning’s case, in 2014 it redirected its resources from donating annually to a large non-profit organization toward addressing issues more closely related to the company’s expertise in material science. Its two main CSR initiatives – sponsoring Taiwan’s National Primary and High School Science Fair and hosting the Corning Future Innovator Competition – are both geared toward “empowering future innovation.”

The year-long competition challenges students to use glass, ceramics, or optical fiber to solve a problem they’ve identified. Last year, it received submissions from nearly 1,000 students across 90 educational institutions around the country and is a model for a similar program launched by Corning China.

“Staying focused on your company’s core competencies and the real needs from the communities are the key factors for a CSR program to be successful and sustainable,” says Daniel Tseng, Corning Taiwan’s president. “We already built a series of CSR programs centering on what we are good at and what our stakeholders need. It’s important for us to stay committed and make improvements.”

In financial services, Citi Taiwan is also channeling its expertise through programs to promote financial literacy. By means of exhibits, financial seminars, an online resource-sharing platform, and even carnivals, it has invested a total of NT$140 million (around US$4.6 million) in that effort over the past 14 years. “Because of our position as the leading global bank, our specialists can deliver the most trustworthy and comprehensive tools for financial education to the general public,” says April Pan, Citi Taiwan’s Head of Corporate Affairs.

2. Meet the needs of your market.

The United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals – a call to action to end poverty, fight inequality, and combat climate change, among other objectives – provide a point of reference for companies looking for topics to target in shaping their CSR projects.

It is important to bear in mind, however, that those objectives may mean different things in different regions.

How companies perform in various settings around the world is driven by the unique political, educational, labor, financial, and cultural conditions in different regions, says Ioannis Ioannou, Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School.  “Any company trying to understand how to implement CSR should understand how the different elements impact the region” it is operating in, he said in a phone interview.

Thus CSR programs in a developed economy such as Taiwan’s should fill different needs than, for instance, in an African country where more than half the population is living in poverty. Programs operating as part of the parent company’s top-down global CSR plan generally have a harder time meeting local needs than would a domestically devised program.

Ioannou urges locally based subsidiaries to identify the major socio-environmental issues facing the market they are operating in, and to take a fresh look at them – viewing them not as predicaments but as problems in need of a solution.

“What is a business?” he asks. “A business is an entity that sees a problem, comes up with a solution, and scales up that solution profitably or efficiently.”

In 2015, Citi Foundation used precisely that approach when it collaborated with The Economist to research youth employment around the world, which turned out to be an issue “more serious than expected.” Whereas the overall unemployment rate worldwide is usually between 3 and 4 percent, the study showed that young people are three times more likely to be unemployed. Having identified this problem, Citi Foundation kicked-off its Pathway to Progress program to equip young people aged 16 to 24 with needed vocational skills and to assist them with job hunting.

3. Consider partnering with ‘umbrella’ non-profits.

For corporates’ CSR activities to be successful, it is helpful to find a highly reputable and well-connected non-profit organization (NPO) to partner with to facilitate acceptance in the community. To select one partner, however, means to neglect others. Companies can be faced with the frustrating task of choosing from among the over 50,000 organizations registered in Taiwan.

“There’s a Chinese phrase zhou shao seng duo (粥少僧多), which means there are lots of monks needing porridge, but little porridge to go around,” says Vincent Shih. In the past, he notes, NPOs who did not receive Microsoft’s support often expressed their disappointment and dismay. To avoid being placed in that position, Microsoft decided to partner with umbrella organizations that are social-issue experts rather than directly with individual NPOs.

“We realized that we don’t have the expertise or the resources to determine” which NPO deserves support, Shih explains. “So we decided to shift that responsibility to TechSoup,” an international network of non-governmental organizations that provides technical support and technological tools to other nonprofits. Now Microsoft contributes the software that goes into the refurbished computers that TechSoup’s Taiwan branch donates to deserving NPOs. It is TechSoup that decides which NPOs qualify, based on its expertise.

Fupei Wang, Managing Director of Ogilvy Public Relations Taiwan, advises clients seeking to partner with an umbrella organization to look for three basic criteria: the organization’s past experience dealing with corporates, flexibility, and accountability. “Companies with very complicated internal procedures may need to work with an international NGO,” says Wang, who is also a co-chair of AmCham Taipei’s CSR Committee. “They will have adopted global best practices, they have the experience, and they often ask big accounting firms to do their financial reporting to ensure accountability.”

4. Let the public know what you’re doing.

Multinational companies should be aware of the need to keep the public well informed regarding the content of their CSR programs. It is a valuable opportunity to demonstrate that foreign-invested companies can also be heavily committed to bettering the welfare of the society in which they are operating.

“Let the Taiwanese people know what you’re doing,” advises Eugene Chien, a former Cabinet minister who is chairman of the Taiwan Center for Corporate Sustainability (CCS). “Most people know the brand name of leading foreign companies but not much more about them,” he says. “They would be interested in knowing what contributions the company is making to the local area.”

From her public relations perspective, Fupei Wang notes: “If you want to strengthen your links with the local Taiwan community, it’s not too difficult. It’s just a matter of defining your objective and deciding on how to approach your audience.” She suggests using such methods such as accepting interviews with local media, creating YouTube videos, and posting updates on Facebook, the most dominant form of social media in Taiwan. “Companies looking to engage the government can also use those channels to share best practices,” she adds.

Another means of burnishing your local image, says Wang, is to apply for CSR awards such as the annual Taiwan Corporate Sustainability Awards (TCSA) administered by CCS. The contenders usually include more than 200 companies that together account for over 80% of Taiwan’s GDP. Making a splash among this elite group can be quite a boost to your corporate image.

Chien encourages multinationals to partner with domestic platforms such as CCS. “International companies work very hard [on CSR], but they tend not to integrate with local companies,” he says. “If they apply for our corporate and research awards, participate in our training courses, and sign up for our CSR conferences, they can show a lot more local people what they’re doing.” When there’s an information vacuum, it’s more likely for misunderstandings to arise, Chien notes.

He emphasizes the need for companies to issue detailed reports on their CSR efforts in the Taiwan market specifically rather than merely include that information within global reports.

“The world is so big and Taiwan is so small,” says Chien. “When there’s not even a line about Taiwan in the company’s global CSR report, it’s meaningless for local people.”

5. Adapt to changing social and technical trends.

A decade ago, autonomous vehicles and smart contact lenses seemed like elements of science fiction. That these concepts are now being realized speaks to the pace of social and technical change currently taking pace. These changes are also opportunities for corporates’ CSR specialists, who have learned to adjust their programs as technology and social issues progress.

Last year, Microsoft Asia’s survey of 1,400 young people showed that the technological innovation most likely to have the greatest impact on their lives is artificial intelligence (AI). As a result, Microsoft set out on a mission to “democratize” AI just as it brought the PC into widespread use in the 1970s. Through Microsoft’s global AI for Good program, Microsoft partners with nonprofits to find solutions.

Seeing AI, the image and product-recognition app developed by the program, gives visually impaired users greater ability to get around on their own, while the Farmbeats app uses Microsoft’s cloud and AI technologies to facilitate data-driven, low-impact farming.

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced plans to invest NT$1 billion (US$33 million) to create an AI R&D center in Taiwan.

Another currently popular topic in Taiwan is gender equality. Since the advent of the #MeToo movement in United States, there has also been renewed focus on this subject in Taiwan – on the ingrained chauvinism and gender stereotypes that can’t be eradicated by government policy alone.

Companies have been racing to align their CSR initiatives with this latest trend. The TCSA recently added a new award category for gender equality, and both Microsoft and Citi have placed added emphasis on issues such as female employment and immigrant women.

Wang believes that in the near future, corporates will also begin paying increased attention to the issue of Taiwan’s aging population. “In the past, lots of multinationals began by working on issues having to do with children because it’s easy to get people’s attention,” she notes. “Now Taiwan’s aging society is going to be a prominent issue, though I haven’t seen too many companies dig into it yet. It will certainly be a big opportunity once people start asking what they as a corporate can do to mitigate the effect of an aging society.”