Giving back to Society

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Giving back to Society
By Robert Ditcham, Staff Reporter GULF NEWS Published: October 03, 2007, 23:52

Ask company employees about the importance of addressing global poverty, illiteracy, homelessness and environmental decay and most will say they care deeply.

Although they may do their bit, financial restraints and limited time may hinder their charitable efforts.

Their employer, on the other hand, has the financial muscle, brand status and human resources to tackle these issues head on. But is it actively engaging in corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes?

In the UAE, the answer is more often than not a negative one. Brand analysts and companies say CSR in the UAE is in its infancy compared to North America, the Far East and Western Europe.

“Developed markets have been open for longer, commercial models and structures have been established, while consumers and pressure groups have grown in importance and in their ability to scrutinise and apply pressure to companies,” said Manal Shaheen, director, sales, marketing and customer service at real estate giant Nakheel.

However, she and many others say the UAE could be on the verge of embracing the global CSR phenomenon, with the recently-launched Dubai Cares campaign providing the much-needed catalyst.

At the time of going to press, nearly Dh700 million have been raised under the initiative, which will put one million children through primary education.

“Of course, there is still some way to go in this part of the world, but I believe that CSR will grow more rapidly than it did in those other regions because the momentum has built up, and lessons – both good and bad – have been learned,” Shaheen said.

As with any decision in the corporate world, there needs to be clear benefit to the firm itself. Why should companies invest in society at large when their primary concern should be their shareholders? After all, isn’t it the job of politicians to tackle society’s ills?

Obligation

According to CSR promoters, companies have a moral obligation to support society and the environment.

“We believe that CSR initiatives are a means for us to give something back to the society and the nation that has handed us everything to get us to where we are now,” said Princy Philip, manager for marketing and corporate communications at UAE property developer Memon Investments. “This fact makes it our moral responsibility to care for the unfortunate and provide for the unloved.”

Defining the business case for CSR is often more of a challenge. But, in a world where brand value and reputation are increasingly seen as a company’s most valuable assets, the pros are becoming more apparent to UAE chief executives.

According to an Ernst & Young survey in Europe, 94 per cent of company executives believe the development of a CSR strategy can deliver real business benefits.

“CSR is becoming more and more important in terms of building a strong corporate brand image, while companies are facing increasing pressure from their clients, customers and staff to be responsible corporate citizens,” said Hermann Behrens, the Dubai-based managing director of brand consultants Enterprise IG.

Behrens stressed that in the Gulf’s competitive job market, potential employees factor in a company’s CSR record when choosing their future job, selecting those that can make a positive impact on society.

According to the organisation CSR Europe, 78 per cent of employees would rather work for an ethical and reputable company than receive a higher salary.

CSR Europe argues that a “responsible attitude” towards society and the environment can make a business more competitive, more resilient to shocks, and more likely to attract and hold both consumers and the best employees.

Business sense

And in a world where socially responsible investment is growing, CSR can also attract investment and save businesses money in dealing with regulators, banks and insurers, the organisation adds. It says socially responsible investment accounts for nearly 13 per cent of the $16.3 trillion in investment assets under professional management in the US.

“The reason companies are taking the issue more seriously because it makes good business sense,” said Shaheen.

“Firstly, it has become clear recently that financial markets are factoring in some of the ‘sustainability’ issues into their valuations and decisions to invest or move their funds.

“Secondly, as customers get more savvy, it’s getting easier to compare the Good and the Bad. There is enormous value with your customers if they know you are one of the good guys and it’s no coincidence that people are prepared to pay a premium for this.”

But adopting CSR initiatives doesn’t always result in a rosy picture being painted of a company. Those that throw money at environmental causes and champion human rights, but also pollute the atmosphere and exploit their workers, will soon be found out, resulting in spectacular public relations disasters.

Behrens said good CSR is about a lot more than donating large sums to noble causes. A CSR campaign that engages the whole company in its ethos and gets its staff involved in charities or social work will have the best results, he said.

Shaheen said Nakheel is aware that CSR is much more than making “token gestures”.

“Although it’s quite normal for companies to make big statements, huge promises, or grand gestures, negative impressions can often be caused by what I’d call ‘tokenism’ – when companies obviously bolt-on campaigns or initiatives that are clearly superficial gestures and not integrated into the ethos of the company,” she said.

“I think that a lot of companies are on the journey from one to the other at the moment.”

The corporate sector’s swift response to the Dubai Cares campaign is among several examples of CSR being pursued in the UAE.

Memon Investments, a Dubai-based property developer and part of the international business conglomerate, the Memon Group of Companies, recently announced its participation in the ‘Safe & Sound’ campaign – BurJuman’s breast cancer awareness programme – as the official annual sponsor.

This will mark Memon Investments’ first CSR undertaking in the region.

Giant property developer Nakheel said it has established initiatives such as Bidaya, an educational and leadership programme aimed at discovering and nurturing the UAE’s next generation of leaders.

The programme offers university scholarships to outstanding male and female candidates from the country’s public high school system.

As one of its key CSR initiatives during 2007, Dubai Holding recently said it has pledged nearly Dh1.5 million to two organisations – the UAE Beit Al Khair and the Dubai Autism Centre.

Over the past two years, Dubai Holding has contributed more than Dh80 million in projects such as a facility for Zayed University and Dubai Education Council.

“Even as we rapidly drive our business to cross new milestones, we regard it as our duty to share the responsibility of the general welfare of the community,” said Mohammad Al Gergawi, executive chairman of Dubai Holding.

Meanwhile, a golf team from oil and gas major BP decided to use its $1,000 prize money won in a golf tournament recently to pay for a facility for autistic children at the Future Centre in Abu Dhabi.

Multinational corporation Halliburton has also made donations to The Future Centre, which provides schooling for children with special needs, through its Halliburton International Fund.

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