This is the gist of my talk at Pragathi 2013 an event on CSR
CSR in Practice
When I was asked to speak on this topic I reflected on what as an individual or as an organisation has actually been done. To hear about what corporate India does, I could recommend a few good resources that would help you. I want to make my talk, a little more personal.
It’s difficult to evaluate one’s life, (both professional and personal) and come up with a fair evaluation. I thought it best to talk about both of these aspects in some measure.
The one rule about social responsibility that I have learnt, (and this is for personal or corporate), is that one has to first help one’s self before he can help someone else. I don’t mean to imply that one has to help one’s self at the cost of another. And this is where the paths of those who do and those who don’t begin to differ. I would like to illustrate this with an example from my own life.
I remember the turn of the century. It was perhaps the darkest period of my personal and professional life. I didn’t have any consistent source of income. I was branded a failure and I was told I was worthless. It was in this phase of my life that an inconsequential incident took place. It was something that taught me something about myself and my own sense of social responsibility.
My brother and I were living in Mumbai at the time. A relative passed away in Bangalore and we were asked to show up for the various ceremonies. We couldn’t afford air travel and we barely had enough to pay for second-class sleeper fares. This was the time before second-class sleeper trains had cushioned seats anywhere. After a backbreaking journey to Bangalore, and two days worth of death ceremonies, we boarded the train back to Mumbai. This time we weren’t even as lucky as the journey in. The train was packed and all we got were two seats close to a really smelly toilet. I spent the night in a state of intermittent sleep. My back hurt, my senses were assaulted but most of all I cried at my sorry state of affairs. It was in this state of mind that both brothers got out at Dadar Railway station in Mumbai.
We stood outside the station waiting for a friend to pick us up on his way back from work. We couldn’t afford a taxi going from Dadar to Powai. While we waited I noticed a family of five people approaching us anxiously. There were two women, a young child, accompanied by two men. They were all well dressed and I distinctly remember the women even had some gold ornaments on them. The younger gentleman approached us and my brother looked the other way. I couldn’t help listen to the man. He told us what appeared to be a sob story I had heard before. The family had come visiting Mumbai from Hubli. I don’t remember why. They were traders and had a shop in some market in Hubli. They were robbed of their belongings and they didn’t have any money to get back. He felt ashamed to seek assistance. He was ready to pawn some jewellery but wasn’t sure if he would ever get it back. He had put together sufficient money to go back but was a little short for the travel, perhaps Rs. 500 or so. While he spoke I continued to look at the others around him. I could see they were visibly uncomfortable standing before me. The elderly couple kept stealing nervous glances; the little kid was being a typical kid, distracted and tugging at his mother’s arm. The entire scenario spoke of honesty and genuine need. In my wallet I generally store away a single large currency note. At that time, the highest denomination in circulation was Rs. 500. I don’t know what came over me, I reached out and handed over the single note to the man. He was overjoyed and the entire family was visibly relieved. He took out a pen and wrote down my address, phone number and promised to wire the money the moment he reached Hubli. He gave me his contact phone number, which I remember placing in my wallet. They went away and my brother was livid at seeing me hand over the very last reserve of cash we had. I was taken aback by his reaction but didn’t react. I don’t know how but I lost the piece of paper with the contact number on it. And I never heard from the man ever again.
The act in itself had little meaning; I was foolish perhaps. But the thought behind the act has remained consistent. In my darkest hour of personal need, I discovered I could still find it in me to share whatever I had with someone I believed to be in genuine and grave need.
It is this social responsibility I believe, needs to be first in one’s DNA before one contemplates greater acts.
The years without any income gave way to modest income and the giving remained.
Then SAGE arrived and I became the CEO. We as a company wanted to do the right thing but the definition of CSR was different between the 100 odd employees at the time. Some said donating clothes is CSR, some said donating blood was the biggest one. We even toyed with the idea of adopting a school or a village where we could devote our time in teaching.
I floated the idea of blood donation. Among the many enthusiastic responses that came through, there was a request that I wasn’t prepared for. An employee wrote to me and requested that the content of his email remain confidential. He told me his predicament; his wife suffered from Thalassemia and he needed to be on hand every other month to donate blood for his wife.
I learnt a lesson that I have never lost sight of: the act of giving has to do with ensuring the giving is not taking away from a need of the giver. You cannot give with a “heavy heart”.
Before we could embark on any full-fledged engagement with CSR, I had to set our own house in order.
What I embarked on might not be counted as real CSR. However, it set the company on the path to taking a more compassionate approach to CSR. Here are the top 5 things in my book.
- We first set the company’s policies in order; there were some written ones, but not everything was transparently done.
- Salary structures were revised to reflect market forces AND what was fair. For the first time we pegged a lower level of salary beyond which no employee is hired at SAGE. This was pegged way above the minimum wages act. Salary structures were also cleaned so that gratuity and other types of long-term compensations were maximised.
- The medical insurance amount was increased substantially. We even extended coverage to parents of employees.
- We introduced a company wide performance linked bonus. This gave everyone a sense of tangible belonging.
- The top of my personal list: every single loss of pay for either late coming or excessive holidays is cleared by the CEO. At last count 98% of the cases DON’T lose a single day’s pay.
These and other initiatives, laid the groundwork to build on a more formal CSR program.
It’s true that by themselves the initiatives don’t sound anything like CSR but I believe without these corrections, an organisation that embarks on external more visible CSR, is bound to alienate its own people. The first step I took is to set my own house in order; I continue to believe this is the right way for organisations to embark on their CSR journey.
Today we have created a pool of charities we actively work with. The key difference is, my team is with me in every act we perform.
The giving is with joy and not compulsion. The joy is heartfelt and not put on.
To me, there can be no better way of putting CSR in practice.