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Civil society amid crisis

“NO INDIVIDUAL corporation or big business can prosper if society as whole does not prosper,” wrote Jerome L. Himmelstein in his business-world shaking book Looking Good & Doing Good some ten years ago. These words fit quite well to our current global turmoil. Perhaps twice as much, if we accept the importance of the basic rule of trust among key players in the standard business environment.

“NO INDIVIDUAL corporation or big business can prosper if society as whole does not prosper,” wrote Jerome L. Himmelstein in his business-world shaking book Looking Good & Doing Good some ten years ago. These words fit quite well to our current global turmoil. Perhaps twice as much, if we accept the importance of the basic rule of trust among key players in the standard business environment.

We are witnessing a total lack of trust among institutions, corporations and between private and public sectors across the globe today. In such an environment consumers get frightened and change their behaviour, the economic cycle slows even more and the whole world faces a deepening economic downturn. Rather than loans for investment, entrepreneurs turn to banks seeking loans for working capital; banks and other financial institutions turn to governments for help rather than providing support for public initiatives; and governments start to focus more so on regulation than stimulation of the business environment. No wonder that individuals get confused and distrustful and no one seems to take care about civil society.

What then should civil society organisations (CSO) do? It’s a moment when we all wish to have a crystal ball. Let’s take the perspective used by CSR professionals in the business community. It means first to accept reality and to be ready for unprecedented and mostly unpleasant decisions. It’s a time when drastic measures, including layoffs, have to be considered. A recent survey by Fórum Darcu in the Czech Republic, a forum of corporate donors, shows that the worst scenarios are expected. Almost 50 percent of Czech CEOs confirm that they have existential issues and there is no reason to be more optimistic for other countries in central and eastern Europe.

The second step is to look for efficiency and long-term partnerships: reviewing and choosing added-value initiatives and core business-related programs. CSR managers are encouraged to put on the table a clear review of commitments, including budget breakdowns with proposed reductions. Given the interdependence between the profit and non-profit sectors, directors of NGO should very soon go through the same exercise and identify their key and most valuable programs.

My favourite option is a model of strategic partnerships. These long-term commitments usually begin with a simple ad hoc activity. Let me demonstrate it through volunteering. Employees learn about the possibility to join a volunteer initiative which is often a one-time activity without the need for specific skills. Inspired by a positive experience, they start to look for skilled-based volunteering opportunities: IT specialists help a CSO with its IT infrastructure, webpage, etc.; banks’ employees advise a CSO on financial issues; HR experts provide support in human resource issues, etc. Gradually, this ad hoc and one-off volunteering turns into long-term assistance in diverse projects and programs, which naturally results in management and leadership cooperation.

For example hundreds of volunteers may participate in the upcoming biggest local volunteer event “Naša Bratislava” on June 12-13 and there is a real chance for some few wholehearted volunteers to become members of the board of directors or serve on the advisory boards of some of these NGOs at the end of the day.

In good times, and even more so in bad times, a company should rely on its long-standing connections with partner NGOs in order to maximize the effectiveness of its CSR projects. These strategic partnerships help a business to keep its employees motivated in working with communities through selected non-profits. Links created through years of common history and diverse interactions are strong enough and flexible to absorb shocks of unexpected events such as this economic crisis. Corporations become familiar with the needs of NGOs and they learn how to balance their financial and in kind support to meet civil society expectations.

Whatever measures are taken, the impact on social mission should be first considered. The pressure on civil society calls for action and CSOs should not be abandoned in their efforts to help society’s present generation in meeting its needs without preventing future generations from satisfying theirs. There shouldn’t be any compromises in sustainable development.

Branislav Cehlárik works for Citi in Slovakia

Topic: Corporate Responsibility


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