By David Wolf
The client was a Fortune 500 company that had just celebrated completing two decades in China. They had been through all of the phases of the localization process. They understood the market and were leaders in their sector. China was their largest market in the world. They knew what they were doing. Then came the day when we started talking about their corporate social responsibility program.
They were spending upwards of US$10 million a year on their CSR efforts, and there was nothing that they could recognize as return-on-investment. Company executives couldn't understand why. They were doing all the right things: well planned programs, leveraging the company's core competency, and genuinely doing a lot of good on the ground. They were even winning awards in the United States for their efforts in China.
And yet, nobody in China seemed to care. The press weren't picking up the story. Most government officials knew nothing about the program, and those that did, shrugged it off. The company was so frustrated they were considering dumping their China CSR program entirely.
After the executive we were meeting finished, one of my colleagues asked a simple question. "How did you develop your China CSR program," she asked?
"Well, our team here worked with our CSR people back in the States," came the reply.
My colleague probed further. "Did you involve the government in the process at all?"
Puzzled silence. "No. We didn't see the need to. We saw a problem that needed fixing, knew we had the core competence to fix it, and went and did it. We've done great work."
This, of course, was the problem. Our client was an Agenda Imperialist.
Seeing a problem that you know you can fix, then going out and fixing it, is by no means a bad thing. That is, after all, the core of the entrepreneurial spirit that drives successful businesses throughout the world and, increasingly, in China.
The instincts that serve us so well in commerce, however, do not always serve us as well when seeking to better the communities in which we operate, but especially if we want to get something more than quiet satisfaction for our CSR efforts.
Simply showing up and unilaterally deciding you're going to go out and fix something in China – even if it is driven by a global CSR agenda with the best of intentions – is not going to make you friends here. At best, you'll get no credit for your work. At worst, you'll be branded a paternalist or a neo-imperialist.
Creating great corporate social responsibility in China is a matter of balancing three agendas: your company agenda (what it seeks to accomplish in the PRC and globally), the global agenda (the clear social challenges upon which most of your global audiences would agree), and the China agenda (the social priorities of the Chinese government and people).
The plain truth is that the more you weight the China agenda in your calculations, the more people in China will acknowledge the value of your efforts.
That's not rocket science, but it's apparently not terribly obvious. A few years ago, I was peripherally involved in a major project auditing the CSR efforts of multinational technology companies in China. Of all the companies we researched, only one was getting significant ROI, acknowledgment, and appreciation from Chinese. Not surprisingly, it was the only company who dumped its global CSR program, bypassed the prescriptive, company-and-global-viewpoint-centric approach, ignored the imprecations of well-meaning NGOs, and instead based its program on an interactive process that engaged government, academics, and media.
The message is fairly clear. There are many ways to create meaningful change in China, even as an agenda imperialist.
But if a core goal of your CSR is acknowledgment, appreciation, or even support from audiences here in China, you had better make sure you are addressing the issues that Chinese find most pressing in a manner Chinese can understand that attains results Chinese can appreciate.
About the author:
David Wolf, President and CEO of Wolf Group Asia, a management advisory firm providing strategic communications counsel to technology, media, entertainment, and telecommunications companies in Greater China and the Asia-Pacific region. He is also Contributing Editor for China CSR. David's opinions are his own and do not reflect those of either WGA or its clients.