Jenny Costelloe, President of the Nanyang Business School-CSR Club shares her experience and key takeaways from the CSR Kaleidoscope Conference 2009.

I’ll be honest; I went to the Kaleidoscope 2009 event with mixed expectations: was this going to be yet another presentation on corporate “do-gooding” and donations, or would the NUS Social Impact Club be able to demonstrate a similar interpretation of CSR to my own (which I’ll explain later)? I’m pleased to say that from start to finish, the conference content was a careful balance of “the what, the how and the why” of CSR – and not a single mention of a big cheque!

Starting with the warm welcome of coffee and snacks, the atmosphere was friendly, inviting and open – exactly the right tone for dialogue on CSR. After a somewhat lengthy, formal welcome of all the dignitaries, speakers, guests and so on (I know, I know – it has to be done!), the conference programme kicked off with an insightful and personable keynote speech by Ms Jessica Tan. This impressive lady was wearing two hats at the conference: one, as Singaporean MP and Chairperson of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Finance, Trade & Industry; and, that of the MD of Microsoft in Singapore. This was the perfect keynote speech, encapsulating both the willingness of the Singaporean government to address CSR and the exemplary CSR activities of one of the best known brands in the world. Indeed, the messages conveyed by Ms Tan were, “We’re Singapore and we’re ready for CSR” and, “Look what an MNC can do for society and still be profitable!” A very powerful, positive lesson for all of us.

Having whetted our appetites for what companies can do with CSR, Ms Tan’s speech was shortly followed by a brief, enthusiastic overview by Professor Albert Teo (Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy) of the Social Impact Club’s enterprising activities of the last year. Then we were treated to a humorous yet intellectual presentation on CSR, by the eminently -likeable Professor Bob Fleming, who set out to explain just what CSR is and what it can mean for companies. Fuelled with plenty of ‘real’ examples, Professor Fleming’s presentation ended with a five-point justification of CSR: it has moral appeal; it gives companies a licence to operate; it protects and builds a company’s reputation; it relies on internal values and creates a legacy of CSR; and, it’s about sustainability. Difficult to argue with!

Next came the much awaited first panel discussion. It was about the “social responsibility of advertising” and the panel line up featured some of Asia’s experts on the subjects of CSR and of communications and marketing. (I’ll admit that alarm bells were ringing because I feared that the discussion was going to go down the route of “CSR is a communications activity”, but thankfully I was wrong again…). Capably chaired by Mr. Jorg Dietzel, the first panel discussion was thought-provoking, insightful (especially with regards to the snapshots of the CSR policies of Tiger beer’s brewers) and at times controversial (“it’s OK for companies to exaggerate the benefits of their products in advertising”). But, the panellists were well behaved (disappointingly!) and made constructive contributions to the discussion, rather than fling accusations at one another. It was clear even in this short debate that the role of the company is difficult to define – where does it stand between moral, social guardian and profiteering, capitalist corporation?

The second panel discussion had a different but equally credible line-up, chaired by Dr. Jayanth Narayanan. The topic this time was about the competitive advantage of CSR and the panel aptly included representatives from banks, a construction materials company, a shipping firm and a coffee manufacturer – along with the head of the Singapore CSR Compact. The conversation was again informative, enlightening and stimulating. Comments such as “CSR is about how you make your money, not how you spend your money” confirmed to me that the days are over when one could soothe one’s corporate conscience by handing over large sums of money to charitable causes. Indeed, this was further confirmed by comments that proved the real benefit of CSR: while one organisation weathered the recent financial storm better than its competitors and attributed this relative success to sustainable business practices; another organisation felt that CSR is one of the main reasons its current employees stay with them, and potential employees apply. Yet more compelling thoughts for the audience.

The event closed with many heartfelt thanks – for the guest of honour, for the presenters, for the panellists and chairs and, most deservedly, for the organising team who brought this high-calibre event together. As President of the CSR Club at another business school in Singapore, I left the event feeling inspired by the content and the discussions, reassured that the large audience shared my belief that CSR has to be at the core of businesses of the future and, if I may end as I began, with a touch of honesty, I was just a little bit jealous that the NUS Social Impact Club had succeeded in delivering the kind of event that many similar clubs will only talk about!

Jenny Costelloe
MBA Participant
Nanyang Business School
President, Nanyang CSR Club

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