How to approach a CSR initiative

“I understand your point of view, but your ideas won’t work here,” said Vijay Kumar, headmaster of the local government school at Palavakkam, a Chennai suburb. I had just spoken to him outside his office, a trifle impatiently, about undertaking a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative for the school, as companies are now legally obliged to take up CSR programmes.

“Road safety training sessions can come later. Basic infrastructure is what we need. We don’t even have a school gate. Shouldn’t this be the first step towards road safety? ” he countered assertively.

Yes, he was right! The school gate was in dangerous proximity to the road, Tamil Nadu State Highway 51. Did  I sound patronising? All I was interested in was to make the school a ‘pilot’ and showcase it as a successful case study to the CSR board and get an approval to scale up the ‘school road safety’ project. The larger purpose behind the CSR theme did not occur to me.

Then, sense kicked in. Be more empathetic, don’t talk down to someone just because you are going to help them, it said. Your regular corporate communications professional persona won’t work here. This was the real world, not the make-believe, pretentious corporate world, I told myself.

I could see that the road outside was jammed with wayward traffic. This school, rather its children, did need road safety guidelines. There was no way little children could cross the road outside.

The school bell rang and children burst on to the school ground, their shrieks and cries and laughter transforming the atmosphere. I watched them play. Kumar came in and smiled, seeing me watch the children playing.  “This is a daily scene, madam. Nothing unusual about it,” he quipped. The mild sarcasm in his voice brought me down to earth a little more.

Then we chatted about the children. We then talked about children in general. The CSR angle was forgotten and we spoke on, one human being to another, one parent to another.

The sounds of the playing children got to me without my immediately realising it. It seemed the headmaster in him saw it too but was gracious enough not to remind me that the school existed before I had heard of CSR and would have been there had no CSR law been heard of.

I did not realise how time passed, and talking with him made me feel humble. Now, I did not think of myself as a corporate executive who had come here to help the school. It was my first field day. Taking the headmaster’s leave, I left the school some minutes later. I was somehow leaving the premises that day, a better person than I was when I entered it. I knew I wouldn’t become a Mother Teresa anytime, but here I was, more humble, more respectful.

Lessons in CSR
Lesson 1, Common sense: A school, though almost in the middle of the state highway, screaming for basic infrastructure, will not be able to prioritise on subjects like road safety. They have more urgent things to do, the important coming after the urgent. I learnt the difference between the two that day.

Lesson, 2: Stakeholder engagement: Get stakeholders involved before planning and strategising. Discussion in open fora (parent teacher association, gram panchayat sabhas) must be the starting point. Visit the actual place before starting to think of a plan for it. Observation is a rich source of learning.

Lesson 3, Appropriate support: Often, supporting the articulated than a perceived need becomes the priority. It must include the appropriate process to achieve an end objective that has more long-term implications. Though infrastructure support was not within our perimeter, later we (the CSR team) approached the district Chief Education Officer with an appeal (representing the school) to expedite the building of a compound wall and a gate. After all, having a secured compound wall is also an inherent part of ‘safety’.

How much effort do we invest in conducting an impact assessment while choosing to implement a CSR project? How sensitive are we to the actual needs of our stakeholders? Or, are we thrusting down something as a solution to the problem from our perspective? Does our pre-conceived judgement override our ability to think logically, rationally?

Defining the scope of the geography, a baseline study of the schools (infrastructure, availability of resources) in the neighbourhood (within the defined perimeter) and thereafter, a stakeholder mapping with impact analysis helped us in terms of going back to the drawing board. This time, the approach was more realistic.

(The writer is a communication specialist on sustainable development)

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