In our local context — and to be fair, globally — CSR has a varied interpretation when applied to firm-level action. The activity set that is covered by CSR locally ranges from the multinationals that use CSR both for reputation building and risk management, to the state enterprises that consider CSR to be a natural extension of their more nation-oriented mandate, to the small businesses who focus on more localised sponsorship and fence-line community support.

This diversity in views is to be expected given the dual nature of our economy — a vibrant, international energy sector that needs to continually win trust from the government and the population alongside a local manufacturing, services and trading sector that tends to be dominated by family-owned businesses with an increasing willingness to look outward. When you add to this mix a very active orientation by government toward policies that are focused on redistribution of energy earnings, then the space for firm-level response to CSR is bound to be quite plentiful.

In the face of such diverse perspectives, I thought it might be useful to explore how we can make CSR more successful, especially for smaller companies that are looking to devote scarce resources to a “worthwhile” cause. However, in doing this, I do not want to focus on the key drivers of successful CSR; that issue, in my view, has been extensively covered globally.

While more can be done to refine discussions on the local environment, I thought it might be more useful to consider some of the key issues in the local context that I have observed after working in this field for more than a decade. These elements, in my view, are preventing a more effective use of CSR as a strategic tool, as opposed to an add-on cost.

The first of these involves demonstrating the value that CSR can add to business value in the local context with “cold, hard facts.” I raise this point because I have learnt after painful failures to win local consultancy work (especially in the non-energy sector) that a pitch to win such work locally involves much “selling” of the concept of CSR before I can even begin to “sell” my solutions.

This is not an attempt to be dismissive of the local business leadership, but I do think — especially as local companies start looking to export — that we need to further establish a credible reason to consider CSR as a more strategic value driver. Too much of the local debate around this is by converts to CSR who — in their fervour — do not make the case in a fact-based way. However, without this approach, it is harder to convince local businesses of the need for a different view.

We need more examples of effective company-level interventions in communities and NGOs that have been made in the local context. More work needs to be done by our academic research institutions to prove empirically the benefits that CSR “done well” can add to the bottom line. I also — maybe controversially — suggest that there is a great deal of research within the local energy MNCs that can help further this debate.

A judicious release of some of the key research and findings used to measure the impact that CSR spending has had on local communities – research which previously has been only for internal audiences – can also help explain the risk management, brand enhancement and employee loyalty that such programmes can deliver. Without such data, CSR practitioners will struggle to get beyond the “let’s do a sponsorship” conversation.

The second issue for me is the need for enhanced capability amongst the local CSR professional community. I think there are encouraging signs that we are moving to fill CSR professional positions with individuals whose backgrounds aren’t limited to public relations or communications functions. But the movement is slow, and I suspect part of the problem is a lack of available training offers available.

A cursory look at programmes relevant to training of CSR professionals shows a lack of in-depth discussion on niche issues related to those professionals, such as reporting standards, quantification of benefits, measurement of impact and community-based stakeholder management.

The practise of CSR requires a multidisciplinary perspective and a cross-functional approach to delivering solutions for business and communities. Training that helps to shape such a perspective would be challenging, but such training is essential to help CSR become part of the strategic conversation of the firm.

There is also another dimension to competency. I humbly suggest that CSR professionals must first and foremost be businesspeople with a solid understanding of business drivers and strategy. Too many of those who work in this field fall short of this measure, to the detriment of their own career advancement and their ability to join the CSR conversation as a key business driver. This is not to say that the ability to understand stakeholders — particularly community-based stakeholders — is not important. Likewise, it is vital to have a deep passion for social issues and improving the lives of the wider community.

However, the CSR professional who is unable to balance the “business need” with the “societal need” will ultimately fail to be heard in the business environment and, worse yet, might be considered “non-core” and a cost of doing business. Ensuring that CSR professionals are steeped in business knowledge and culture allows the social discussion to become about business and not separate and apart from “the business.”

The area of CSR is rich for debate in Trinidad and Tobago. However, while community needs remain significant, local business will only be convinced of the need to put hard-earned money into social programmes if a compelling case is made for CSR’s business value.

Having hard data to support this argument, as well as highly skilled, business-focused professionals to deliver the argument, will go a long way toward moving this issue to the strategic core of local businesses.