There is perhaps no industry that is immune to the charms and seductions of an award. Ranging from the prestigious ones like the Nobel prizes for real, transformative achievements, to glitzy ones like the Oscars, there are awards ‘honouring’ companies of every possible sector, arts, entertainment, startups, activists, NGOs, and so on (there are the more absurd ‘style icons’ too, if you care). It was only a matter of time before some bright person came up with the idea of CSR awards – after all, how would you prove that CSR was important if there were no eponymous awards to be dished out?

There are a fair few organisations in India who have taken up the responsibility of deciding whose CSR work deserves a trophy and whose doesn’t. While most of them openly seek applicants, the modus operandi of selecting the winners is shrouded in a thick, opaque cloth. Who are the adjudicators, what are the metrics and parameters used, how are the CSR claims and achievements verified, and are they even bothered to do so – these are some of the many questions that remain unexplored and unanswered. So, naturally we decided to make it otherwise.

There are a fair few organisations in India who have taken up the responsibility of deciding whose CSR work deserves a trophy and whose doesn’t. While most of them openly seek applicants, the modus operandi of selecting the winners is shrouded in a thick, opaque cloth. 

CSR awards in India

India CSR, a media house wholly focused on (no surprises) CSR and sustainability, is one of the most enthusiastic proponents of CSR awards, judging by the numerous awards handed out by them. Its India CSR Leadership Awards have been touted (by them) as one of the ‘prestigious recognitions’ in the field of CSR. The categories are many: innovative project (large impact), project of the year (large impact – there’s no concurrent award for ‘small’ impact), sanitation leadership, numerous lifetime achievement awards, leadership, ‘person’ of the year, ‘professional’ of the year, etc., are some of the awards up for grabs. There’s also a never-ending list of recipients of the ‘community initiative’ awards as well as awards for NGOs. Clearly, there are no losers, not at least in this award ceremony. The entry fee to be considered for these awards is Rs 51,000. The selection process involves three steps: questionnaire assessment, shortlisting of nominees by the jury in consultation with India CSR, and final selection by the jury. In 2016, the organisation also launched the country’s first-ever ‘CSR author’ awards ‘to honor the authors and journalists for their outstanding contributions to the domain of corporate social responsibility in contemporary India.’

Then you have the CSR Impact Awards, which is an NGO Box initiative (an online development sector platform with interests in CSR-related research and advisory work), awarding ‘high impact CSR projects in 15 categories’. Started in 2014, it invites applications for these categories which, thankfully, have been demarcated by funding versus implementing agency and by sector (health, education, environment etc). Of course, this means that the number of actual awards given out will be much higher than 15, keeping most of the applicants happy. However, that comes at a price, with the per-application fee ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 30,000 (plus tax) depending on the CSR project expenditure and number of employees of the organisation. While NGO BOX has collaborated with SP Jain Institute of Management & Research (SPJIMR), the Mumbai-based business school, as the evaluation partner, there is little clarity on what those evaluation criteria are. The application form is fairly detailed with standard questions on project design and goals, outcomes, and scalability.

Of course, this means that the number of actual awards given out will be much higher than 15, keeping most of the applicants happy. However, that comes at a price, with the per-application fee ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 30,000 (plus tax) depending on the CSR project expenditure and number of employees of the organisation.

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) has been in the CSR appreciation business since 1999. It has limited the number of awards to eight, with sector-wise categorisation (women empowerment, health and sanitation, etc.,) and awards for innovation, NGOs and SMEs. The ‘extremely competitive’ three-tier selection process has criteria such as identification of target beneficiaries, action plan, implementation structure, budget, impact, sustainability and scale-up. Luckily, some information on the assessment weightage is provided: 30 points each for desktop verification and field assessment (easily the most credible feature of this award), and 40 for jury assessment. Although the e-brochure mentions that ‘the whole application process will be online and also the markings at all the three stages’, this author couldn’t find supporting documents. The application fee ranges from Rs 15,000 to 35,000 plus tax. Incidentally, the awards are conducted by FICCI Aditya Birla CSR Centre for Excellence, which makes Essel Mining (part of the Aditya Group) winning the Innovative Approach award last year a conflict of interest for the organisers.

Although the e-brochure mentions that ‘the whole application process will be online and also the markings at all the three stages’, we couldn’t find supporting documents. The application fee ranges from Rs 15,000 to 35,000 plus tax.

Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has multiple awards pertaining to energy and water management, health and safety, environment, etc. The most CSR-ish award instituted is the Sustainability award, presented by CII-ITC Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Development (manufacturing and services sector only). The award recognises ‘exemplary performance in economic, social and environmental dimensions of Indian business’ and ‘excellence achieved by businesses in mainstreaming sustainability with business practices’. The categories are corporate excellence and domain excellence (environment management, CSR, and biodiversity). It is said to be the only ‘third-party assured’ award in India, and perhaps the only awards event where there is an attempt to make it carbon-neutral (for 2017). Practise what you preach, as they say.

 It is said to be the only ‘third-party assured’ award in India, and perhaps the only awards event where there is an attempt to make it carbon-neutral (for 2017). Practise what you preach, as they say.

Based on the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM) model, the 250 questions are said to cover the whole gamut of the sustainable way of doing business (corporate governance, CSR, health and safety, business ethics, disclosure, etc.). The assessment process is conducted over a period of six months by CII-certified ‘sustainability assessors’, consulting with the representatives of the applicants; this is after a jury decides on the shortlisted nominees after assessing their applications. The jury then decides the final winners on the basis of the on-site assessments. Fees are charged to all applicants, irrespective of whether they win or lose – the amount varies from Rs 20,000 to Rs 175,000, depending on the unit turnover of the company.

The National CSR Leadership Awards are held by World CSR Day, a self-proclaimed ‘for purpose’ organisation. The awards are divided into organisational and individual, with multiple categories in both. There are no questionnaires or assessment parameters involved – just write-ups, profiles, previous awards and related interviews suffice, which makes the process seem quite subjective. An academic council is responsible for accepting or rejecting entries, and this is followed by an evaluation by the executive council (members are CSR experts and senior industry leaders). A presentation to the jury is the final step, after which results are collated based on all the evaluation rounds. Entry fees are applicable to all applicants.

There are no questionnaires or assessment parameters involved – just write-ups, profiles, previous awards and related interviews suffice, which makes the process seem quite subjective.

Golden Peacock Awards were initiated by the Institute of Directors (IOD) in 1991. These awards are given at a national and global level and cover various categories including environment management, innovation, corporate governance, and risk management. Broadly, there are two types of CSR awards: Indian and international. However, multiple awards can be, and are, given to organisations from different sectors and size, whether public or private. The selection process consists of a marginally detailed questionnaire (including a self-appraisal report) that is assessed at three levels comprising independent assessors drawn from CSR and sustainability fields, site visit (the decision on whether to conduct it or not is made by a separate assessment team), and the final decision making by a grand jury. Site visits are conducted only when the assessment team sees the need to verify the applicant’s system and processes, investigate areas that cannot be captured in a short document, and to determine additional facts. Some big names have been a part of the grand jury, like the late Justice PN Bhagwati, former Chief Justice of India, and Justice MN Venkatachaliah, another Chief Justice of the country. The applicants are scored out of a total score of 1,000 against the set parameters, with the cut-off being 80 per cent. The organiser’s rationale for not disclosing weightage is to ensure that equal importance is given to each and every question.

The application fees aren’t cheap – they range from Rs 43,500 to $1000 plus taxes, which as per the organisers are levied to ‘cover the cost of the assessment process’. About 150 applications are received every year (both national and global). On potential conflict of interest between the organisers/jury members and the applicants, they are of the view that since the details of the members and applicants are not shared on public domain, it shouldn’t be a problem. However, this obviously doesn’t take care of cases where members have relations with an applicant or have vested interests in ensuring their win.

On potential conflict of interest between the organisers/jury members and the applicants, they are of the view that since the details of the members and applicants are not shared on public domain, it shouldn’t be a problem. However, this obviously doesn’t take care of cases where members have relations with an applicant or have vested interests in ensuring their win.

CB thoughts

While one is usually wont to dismiss most award ceremonies as a self-congratulatory, ego-boosting, nepotistic exercise amounting to little more than white noise, we were willing to broaden our minds to embrace the possibility of worthy, mildly objective CSR awards. Which isn’t that difficult when you think about it – unlike the arts and entertainment (which are, and should be, subjective), good work in CSR can usually be measured and verified if one is willing to invest the required time and efforts. Any well-planned and well-intentioned CSR project will have rigorous, scientific metrics, benchmarked to acceptable internal and global standards as well as frequent and periodic impact assessments conducted by internal and external parties. That is the only way to ensure its long-term, tangible, and measurable success.

However, except the CII awards, the others don’t insist on external assessors or field visits to evaluate the actual implementation and impact of the work done by the applicants. Details on the evaluation criteria and methodology (weightage, process, cross-verification, etc.,) are usually not provided. CB’s questions to the organisers were also not met with any kind of response (including the usual ‘We are not able to participate this time’ explainer), with the exception of Golden Peacock. Disclosures related to the jury-selection process are universally not available. Even basic hygiene practices such as ensuring avoidance of conflict of interests among the applicants, organisers and jury members are missing.

Unlike in the arts and entertainment domain (which are, and should be, subjective), good work in CSR can usually be measured and verified if one is willing to invest the required time and efforts. Any well-planned and well-intentioned CSR project will have rigorous, scientific metrics, benchmarked to acceptable internal and global standards as well as frequent and periodic impact assessments conducted by internal and external parties. However, except the CII awards, the others don’t insist on external assessors or field visits to evaluate the actual implementation and impact of the work done by the applicants. Details on the evaluation criteria and methodology are usually not provided. Even basic hygiene practices such as ensuring avoidance of conflict of interests among the applicants, organisers and jury members are missing.

Then there’s the dubious fact that all of these awards require a hefty sum from interested applicants to even be considered by the award organisations. This, naturally, may be a deterrent for smaller organisations who may be doing good work in their chosen CSR fields. Even more so, it raises the question of why are such entry fees even being imposed when most of these awards do not seem to have external evaluators or multiple field visits as part of their assessment process. Sponsor tie-ups are frequent and should take care of the bulk of the expenses related to the actual award ceremony. Are any audits even conducted? Not to our knowledge.

Most awards have (not undeservingly) earned the reputation of being a mutual admiration society where benefits and favours are traded, much like the barter system of the old. So, to get a celebrity turn up for your event, you create an inane award category for them, say ‘most stylist actor whose fashion choices have exposed the terrible conditions of garment workers in Bangladesh’. CSR awards can escape this taint if they are willing to be open and transparent about the hows, whys and whats of their evaluation processes. Right now, the only judgement we can make is that most of these are nothing but poorly veiled attempts at making money.

Also Read: Suggestions, observations and ideas for National CSR Awards