Social impact, social change, and social innovation—these are aspirational concepts in themselves reflective of a movement, but how do we define them?

In 1970, the sociologist James Taylor defined social innovation this way: “new ways of doing things in order to meet social needs.” How would you add to that?

Peter Drucker, perhaps more than any other influential thought leader on management science, wrote expansively and passionately on what he termed “The Age of Social Transformation” that identified the growing potential and creativity of private sector nonprofit organizations. Drucker also differentiated between two-types of corporate social responsibility: those having to do with social impacts or what business does to society, and those having to do with social problems or what business can do for society. COF’s most recent publication, “Increasing Impact, Enhancing Value: A Practitioner’s Guide to Leading Corporate Philanthropy,” includes the results of the 2011 poll on Society’s Expectations of Corporate Responsibility, which differentiates along the same lines as Drucker.

The poll distinguishes between “Operational Responsibilities” and “Citizenship Responsibilities.” Operational Responsibilities are what companies do to society, such as producing safe and healthy products, not harming the environment, ensuring responsible supply lines, and treating employees fairly. No surprise the poll found that people have very high expectations (60-79 percent) that companies will act responsibly. Citizenship Responsibilities are those things that companies can do for society, such as making goods available to low-income customers,  supporting community projects, increasing global sustainability, human rights, reducing the rich-poor gap, and solving social problems. Those surveyed had much lower expectations (30-50 percent) for this category.

What does this tell us?

I think it tells us that the first role of corporate responsibility is the first rule of life, which is to do no harm. If a business is not successful in satisfying that imperative, no amount of charitable giving, employee volunteerism, or creative ideas around social innovation is going to matter.  As Colin Lacon, president and CEO of Northern California Grantmakers said last week at the 2012 Corporate Philanthropy Institute, “The corporations we represent have tremendous potential to heal or to harm.”

That is the fundamental tension that exists.

Doing no harm, however, is not merely a zero-sum game if there is evidence of preventing negative consequences and producing positive societal impact. For example, if a company is an extractor of natural resources and its actions left unchecked could devastate ecology, and the company invests in and implements systems to preserve and sustain that ecology, doing no harm goes beyond being defensive. It is a proof that business and the natural world can productively co-exist.

This suggests that the most creative role for corporate social responsibility and philanthropy goes far beyond being an act of redress, correction, amendment, or atonement for a misdeed. The toughest return on investment for this work, but perhaps the most important, is right in the “heart of darkness” that every commercial venture must face one way or another. The value added for corporate philanthropy—defined in the broadest terms—is not as frosting on the cake of goodness, but in meeting squarely those aspects that are most troubling. To turn a negative into a positive is a very good thing indeed.

This raises the ante I think. It raises the potential of the corporation as a platform for creative work in the resolution of social dilemmas, and it raises the bar for those who work in this field.

So, is this an accountability discussion? The answer is yes. The first question for all philanthropy is: Who am I accountable to and for what? At the end of the day, we are accountable for our actions as they play out in a community, literally and figuratively on the ground or in the sea, and as they play out for multi-national corporations around the world.

Is this a values and moral discussion? The answer is yes. The intersections between the values of the donor, and in the case of a business, stated company values and operational values, those of its associates, its team members, its cast members, its customers, and the communities of interest it works within, are the pathways that corporate social responsibility and philanthropy travel.

This is a complex subject. It does not lie out well on a grid. I was at a UCSB conference meeting last week on the role of religion in civil society, and one of the participants said, “Civil society is a spider web—the interconnectedness is woven and intimate, and is both fragile and resilient and is never complete.” I think the same can be said of corporate philanthropy. We’ve weaved a complicated “web” and must now decipher and map its intricacies.

This blog entry was taken in part from Peter Karoff’s Opening Plenary at the 2012 Corporate Philanthropy Institute hosted by Northern California Grantmakers. To read the speech in its entirety, please visit