What It Takes To Be A Good Corporate Citizen In China

What does the future hold for corporate citizenship in the world’s most populous country? Rich Brubaker, a CSR expert based in Shanghai, offers a forecast.


Richard Brubaker

Managing Director, Collective Responsibility

Who He Is:

Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step in corporate citizenship. As the Managing Director of Collective Responsibility and a Visiting Professor of Sustainability at the China Europe International Business School, Richard is focused on building platforms that promote long-term organizational capacity to address the economic, environmental and social hurdles that China faces.

Q: What challenges face companies that aspire be good corporate citizens in China?

 
A: First and foremost, understanding what that means at the macro level, and then having a clear understanding of how to develop supporting strategy and tactics. For many firms the definition ends up being to employ staff, pay taxes, and don’t break any laws. For some, being transparent and demonstrating product safety are also considerations. By and large, the mass tends to stay there.

For leaders, this is taking a different form, by firms viewing challenges faced by society and the environment as a market for innovation, and exploring what opportunities exist through business operations to bring solutions to the market. [Learn more in Collective Responsibility’s report.]

Q: How would you describe current CSR opportunities in China?

 
A: There are countless opportunities available, and we have seen little overlap in our recent engagements with firms who are developing their CSR programs.

It truly is a big blue ocean!

For a long time, Chinese companies were following the lead of the multinational corporations when it came to corporate social responsibility. Syntao, in its 2018 trends report, argues that today, Chinese companies are innovating in CSR. Syntao argues, “People need to recognize and adapt to this key change.”

Q: Are you seeing CSR innovation in China?

 
A: Honestly, while there are a lot of really great programs, I do not see much in the way of innovation in CSR yet. At times there are innovations that make things easier, like online donations, but there are really no new models for CSR being developed here.

Where I do see innovation is in Chinese entrepreneurs who are using business to try to solve big problems such as food safety, affordable healthcare, and education. Because they are in China, they are able to pilot and scale in ways that, if successful, will provide opportunities to bring about much wider changes in Asia. Often, there is a tangible relationship between the entrepreneur and the issue they are looking to solve.

This may explain why corporate initiatives have largely failed to gain traction in China.

Companies aren’t close enough to the problems and their teams may not be able to support a long-term timeline for impact.

This has resulted in a lot of CSR activities lacking deeper impact thus far.

Q: How are companies shifting their approach to charitable donations in today’s market?

 
A: Over the last couple of years, I would say that while donations are by and large the most consistent component of externally-facing CSR programs, there is less and less fanfare made by firms about the donations they are making. This may be in part from a recognition that donations do not drive much value to the brand, unless the donation is of a considerable size (e.g. $10 million). It could also be rooted, in part, by the fact that many firms tend to give to the same organizations every year, so highlighting that each time isn’t something many firms are going to spend time and marketing dollars on. [Learn how to create an effective and strategic CSR program anywhere in the world.]

Q: What encouragement might you give to corporate philanthropy leaders?

 
A: Wake up every morning and know how privileged we are to work in this field, to have the honor and trust of major companies to say, “Here are our people, our assets, and our resources, and we’re entrusting you to deliver impact for our company and for our world.”

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