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Don’t trust CSR awards? Here are five reasons why we really need them

EDIT: My colleague, Stephanie Harig, appears to disagree.

I understand why some people don’t like awards, contests, rankings, etc., especially when they’re related to corporate social responsibility and sustainability. They worry about the motives of awards-seeking organizations and are afraid that too much energy and talent will go into applying and winning – and “saying” the right things – with not enough left to focus on what really matters: “doing” the right things by being a responsible corporate citizen and engaging with stakeholders in a mutually beneficial manner.

I don’t despise awards, but I respect the cynicism. After all, there are dozens of CSR awards and almost all of them are “pay to play.” (Trust me, we’ve done a bunch of research to build the list.) Many of the organizations that sponsor them are either too aloof to share their criteria or they’re so close to the companies they are evaluating that it would be a stretch to refer to the winners as having earned independent, third-party recognition.

It’s a fact that a number of “scorekeepers” also provide consulting services to the very companies they are evaluating. In recent years, I have particularly enjoyed reading the results of SustainAbility’s “Rate the Raters” project, which has studied the quality and transparency of corporate sustainability rankings, and often found them lacking.

And, yet, on balance, I think a robust collection of awards, contents and rankings is essential for sustainable success in this field. Here’s why:

  1. Rankings and the like provide a way to keep score against set criteria. In the absence of government mandates, how else are we going to know what’s standard, above average and outstanding?
  2. Awards help to sustain momentum and reinvigorate people and processes. In most organizations, CSR is hard work done by people who have myriad other responsibilities and distractions.
  3. Winning provides a significant milestone, a reason to celebrate, in an otherwise endless journey toward continuous improvement, zero waste, energy efficiency, 100% participation, etc. As one of our CSR-motivated clients is fond of saying, “When success is celebrated, it is repeated.”
  4. Visibility is important, especially if you hope to attract people who can help, executive buy-in, financial support and new ideas to the effort. Good CSR programs that function mostly behind the scenes are missing a “spark.”
  5. The pursuit of outside recognition is a learning opportunity – learning from the judging criteria, the judges’ comments, and other applicants and winners. It’s a continuous improvement agenda, and it assumes you don’t know everything you need to know internally to get the job done.

I would give the CSR recognition field a “Highly Important” rating, with an “Opportunity for Improvement” (and consolidation) caveat. For companies that pursue such recognition, I would say “winning isn’t everything,” but “winning the right way” makes a lot of sense.

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