Of course Coffee for Cause had to go virtual this year, and like everything else about the past year, the newness of it had Team CB both excited and apprehensive about how easily or freely the conversations would flow. After all, flowing conversations is as much a hallmark of Coffee for Cause as the coffee is.
As it turned out, while we missed the ‘normal’ get-together where participants get to meet, converse and network over coffee and lunch, we did have stimulating and thought-provoking talks with CSR and sustainability decision makers and development sector leaders, who have started to look beyond Covid-19 with a different perspective of the world…
Online or offline, so long as the fundamental objective is met, it’s all good, as they say. In a year where we missed the palpable energy and tension of in-person discussions and debates, it was all the more important to ensure the continuity of conversations among development-focused professionals.
Thought Leaders’ Meetup
The idea of the meetup was to have CauseBecause Thought Leaders get together to share their experiences and reflections around five years of CSR and one long year of the pandemic in a ‘not-quite-formal conversation’, the ‘not quite formal’ part being a signature characteristic of Coffee for Cause.
When one actively listens to accomplished professionals, the takeaways usually are some key points, a few thoughts and ideas here and there, and what one would make of the experiences being narrated.
Shared here are some of those takeaways from the conversations that happened amongst the Thought Leaders.
- Be humble, be kind. And yes, slow down as much as you can
Some of the participating leaders had closely witnessed marginalised communities struggling with the hardships of life, and shared how this affected their own perspectives on poverty and vulnerabilities of the poor.
Interestingly, with the beginning of the lockdown many large companies engaged their CSR task force in relief activities – distribution of meals, ration kits and groceries for the poor, and also of protective face masks and hand sanitisers, etc. – and the Thought Leaders shared their experiences of how their respective companies took immediate decisions, found relevant partners, engaged with the authorities for lockdown passes, and ensured that the relief materials reached the targeted population, many of whom were either in slums of metro cities or in remote villages in districts all across India.
Call it a humbling experience, an eye-opener, a realisation like no other, and what have you, the point is that those who were supervising the relief and reaching-out operations found themselves waking up to a different set of ground realities. Clearly, the utilisation of CSR funds will need to be improvised going ahead, such that it helps bring about sustainable transformation at the grassroots.
The Thought Leaders were unanimous in upholding the thought that they and their peers as well as their employees need to go beyond monetary investments and continue to exchange love, compassion and happiness.
- Partner to avoid replication of development efforts
When the free-flowing conversation moved on to long-term social investments, specifically with regard to projects that were started about four to five years ago, they all agreed that most companies invested in near-similar programmes, especially the ones targeted at rural communities. Such projects mostly focus on: a) education – be it development of education infrastructure or soft interventions intended to improve academic performance of students in government schools in the rural, or b) healthcare – starting from health camps to mobile medical units, to setting up of healthcare centres, or c) livelihood-generation activities, mostly for rural women.
Considering that many companies have their areas of operation within the same geographies (especially the commercial/business hubs or special economic zones), and have almost the same set of beneficiaries, they end up doing same/similar social activities, which means they almost replicate each other’s efforts.
Against this backdrop, there is a strong case for engaging, meeting and conversing more, to explore synergies and partnership options. This way, companies can define their areas of work in specific geographies and explore partnerships to complement each other’s work to make a larger, sustainable impact.
On the basis of this specific input, Team CauseBecause is exploring possibilities of starting regional district-specific conversational meetups for relevant stakeholders including the local public officials, opinion leaders, non-profit entities and CSR leads.
- Complement the government’s goals
This has been discussed with various degrees of intensity and understanding ever since the CSR voluntary guidelines came in (our veteran Thought Leaders also talked about the significance of the guidelines and how and why these had to be issued in 2013). There is no denying that the fundamental objective of any social intervention has to be aligned with the larger welfare goals of the government.
Moreover, programmes should be designed in a way that in the long run they can be synced to the ongoing initiatives of the government and handed over to the relevant district authorities. This is the only viable way to sustain social programmes that need large investments initially and may need consistent monetary support for their continuation.
- Contribute towards impact-focused policymaking
The Thought Leaders emphasised that CSR decision makers should not just look at the ‘compliance’ aspect of the rules, which get modified from time to time; they should, instead, also play a role in the policymaking process – in other words, share ideas, comment on the drafts of policies when they are made available in the public domain for feedback, and if needed, form a consortium, represent domain stakeholders, appeal to the government for any change they think is needed…
- Propagate sustainable living amongst employees
During the concluding minutes of the meetup, Team CB raised this interesting question: when a company states that ‘we are socially and environmentally responsible,’ what or who do they mean by the ‘we’? Does it mean that each of their employees across hierarchies is as conscious and responsible as their employer is?
Connecting the dots, our Thought Leaders talked about their volunteering initiatives, explained how the practice of ‘individual social responsibility’ has evolved alongside corporate social responsibility, and noted that on the whole, employees’ participation in their company’s social initiatives has been growing consistently…
Team CauseBecause is in talks with several large corporate houses to align the efforts of their employees with the larger goal of sustainability – ideally have them commit to one voluntary action that will see the idea of sustainable living as an everyday, lived reality.
Go to next page for excerpts from conversation round 1