Embracing Social Responsibility – A Few Takeaways From The Vardaan Seminar

On 19th December 2014, a few brilliant minds gathered on-stage to share their insights in the area of social reform. Organized by Vardaan, this seminar dealt chiefly with the topic of embracing social responsibility.

The first speaker for the day was Mr. Santosh Hegde, a former Justice of the Indian Supreme Court who had also served as the Solicitor General of the country.

Sharing The Burden Equally

According to the former Justice, today’s society had become obsessed with wealth and power; compassion was no longer a driving motive. He questioned the practicality of a CSR mandate, especially when the government itself was finding it difficult to account for revenues.

Justice Hegde then talked about some of the popular Indian scams that had occurred over the years. In the 50s, the government had been cheated out of ₹52 lakhs (approximately ₹50 crore today) in a popular scam. By the 80s, the Bofors scandal had come to light, and it was discovered that funds worth ₹64 crore had been misappropriated. In 2000, two major frauds shook the country—while the Commonwealth Games scam cost the exchequer ₹70,000 crore, the 2G Spectrum scam was estimated to be a whopping ₹1,76,000 crore.

He was of the view that the CSR mandate wouldn’t even be necessary if such scams hadn’t occurred. These frauds had occurred because many people had shunned their own responsibilities in the blind pursuit of wealth. In short, each person is responsible for the welfare of another; creating moral liability by forcing companies to donate isn’t the answer to effective societal change.

Re-evaluating CSR Relationships And Objectives

Ms Vandana Mahajan, a popular social activist, was next in line. The CSR mandate, according to her, had brought about a number of positive changes—there was an unprecedented level of interest in the social reform sector and investments were at an all-time high. According to her, as CSR in India was still in its infancy, businesses and non-profits needed to collaborate in a more productive manner. Ms Mahajan also talked about the some of the key social concerns in today’s society from her experience as a reformer. Entrepreneurship, urban safety, women and children’s empowerment, rural livelihood and ecological sustainability were some issues that she touched upon.

Ms Mahajan also went into the traditional trust-deficit between non-profits and corporates. She discussed how most corporates chose to work with only those NGOs they could fully understand, leaving out hundreds of other genuinely committed non-profits that could definitely do with some help.

“Can we bring in the same seriousness, prestige and pursuit of excellence to realising the goal of social change that we give to the realisation of economic development, profit maximisation and business growth?”.

This was her earnest plea.

Bridging The Gap Between Corporations And Non-Profits

The first person to represent the corporate world at the gathering was Mr Jacob Kurian, a Partner at New Silk Route Advisors. He was of the view that many companies failed to tackle CSR in the right manner. Companies that just wrote out cheques needed to embrace the idea of CSR as an integral part of business. Meaning that they needed to approach each social initiative as they would a business. Social programs needed objectives, both short-term and long-term. Each program needed to be measured for its impact just as a business project would be evaluated for its profitability. On a concluding note, he said that all the stakeholders had to be actively engaged if a social program was to have any chances of success.

Looking Ahead To A Productive Future

The last speaker in the seminar was Mr Thomas Raffa, the Founder and CEO of Raffa Inc., a consulting firm based out of Washington DC. Like Mr Hegde, he thought that forcing companies to pay 2% of their profits wasn’t really going to make things better in the long run. Mr Raffa talked about how Indian non-profits needed to evolve from their highly dependent positions to become sustainable, well-capitalized organizations. According to him, business was an important force in society that could be used effectively for the greater good. He had this to say about real sustainability, “We have to ensure that what we do today to meet our needs will not compromise the ability of our future generations to meet theirs—this is what sustainability is all about”

Some of the topics tackled in the seminar include the effectiveness of enforcing CSR, the role of non-profits in the arena of social development and the need for strategically tailored social programs. A few case studies were discussed as well that could be potentially used as guideposts by non-profits striving to make a change.

On the whole, the issues discussed in the gathering were of great significance to both corporates and non-profits. A great many truths were propounded at the Vardaan seminar, which offered an engaging deliberation for those who were truly interested in creating effective social change.