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Interview: BSR’s Aron Cramer on how to build a global network of responsible corporations

,    /   Oct 25th, 2010International, Interviews

Financial and social profits don’t always go hand-in-hand; many view the two as antithetical. Aron Cramer has made a career out of upending this notion. Driven by a belief that business leaders care as much as anyone else about social concerns, Cramer has spent 15 years with Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), where as President and CEO, he oversees an organization that works with 250 companies in 32 countries, advancing standards for ethical and environmental behavior. Here, Cramer, shared his vision with Dowser.

Dowser: What critical or urgent problems are you trying to address as the head of BSR?
Cramer: We are trying to leverage the power of the business community to create a more just and sustainable world. We do this by catalyzing business to improve the social and environmental impacts of their activities. There can be hostility between government and business, and we help people see how they can collaborate to achieve social solutions. While we believe market solutions are critical for progress, business as usual won’t get us there.

How did BSR get started and how has it evolved over time?
BSR really started twice. The first time, in 1992, there was a strong desire on the part of a group of entrepreneurs and businesspeople to create an alternative voice on public policy from the socially responsible business community. The headquarters were set up in Washington, D.C. with the intent to influence public policy. Two years later, in 1994, the board concluded that the mission wasn’t being successfully pursued and the organization was re-launched with a new mission. The second version of BSR provided responsible business leaders with the support of an organization that aimed to help them integrate social responsibility into their business practices and have a greater impact inside their organizations.

You took over as BSR’s CEO in 2004. Did you face a steep learning curve?
When I assumed the position of CEO, BSR was going through a transitional time. There was a sense by some that the organization had plateaued, in terms of size and developing original intellectual content. I had been with the organization for nine years; the challenge was how to change and maintain continuity at the same time. At first, I underestimated the change involved in becoming CEO of an organization I knew well: Lots of things were different. You have to take responsibility for everything that happens; you’re never done; you have to manage time well. I couldn’t do it alone. I needed help and created a management team, brought in outside partners and experts, and talked with members.

Who were the first critical supporters?
BSR grew out of the Social Venture Network (SVN), a group of entrepreneurs and wealthy individuals who believe in social ventures. Members of the SVN created BSR to do things the Social Venture Network couldn’t because of its focus on individuals rather than companies.

BSR’s got some pretty heavy-hitting supporters on board. How did you develop this support network?
We built our network one by one. One of the key elements in helping us get started was grants from foundations such as Ford and the Haas family foundations, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These provided seed capital that enabled us to develop our programs and website, which was the first comprehensive database on corporate social responsibility.

What about the more than 250 companies you work with?
We devoted substantial time to recruiting companies into our network. Once we got a degree of momentum, word of mouth also played a major part, and helped us build our network. The additional dimension, somewhat unique to BSR, was that we built credibility with business by establishing good relationships with NGOs. That way, companies saw that BSR was adept at building collaboration, which is valuable for companies.

There are obviously many important decisions you had to make with BSR. But was some of your success just chance?
We benefited from really good timing. If the organization had started five years earlier, it would have been too early. If we had started five years later, it would have been too late. First-mover advantage is really important. We were able to become the reference point in the U.S. for corporate social responsibility issues, and then build a record internationally, which has enabled us to create a global network today.

What is BSR’s strategy for growth?
We will grow to achieve our mission, not just for growth’s sake. The whole world is starting to embrace sustainability on some level and we want to help catalyze, shape, and reflect on this thinking.

Our strategy is to be comprehensive and help businesses understand how all of the issues are interrelated. We help companies stay ahead of the curve and will continue to develop top-flight leadership. We encourage businesses to address a range of social and environmental issues and figure out which are most relevant, prioritize them, and figure out how the business can address the problem.

How would you describe the organizational culture? How is that culture created?
The culture is evident in the passion and commitment that the staff has. Everyone believes in the mission.

I believe that the staff needs to have a truly global outlook on things since solutions have to embrace the global nature of business, and many of the problems we address do not have borders. We are undergoing a great shift to be more decentralized and think more on global terms. It has taken work to change from being a North American-focused organization to a truly global one.

We also seek people who embrace collaboration. This is important both within BSR, so we can act as a team, and externally, where our most valuable projects tend to include a heavy element of collaboration.

There’s a lot of animosity toward globalization, particularly as implemented by businesses. But BSR’s strategy is deliberately global. How do you respond to globalization critiques?
Many people blast globalization, but it has enabled us to build linkages we have never been able to build before. We can address global challenges, such as poverty, more today than ever before. Business people can be better ambassadors than some actual ambassadors are.

Partly because of technology and with our understanding of global linkages, we have immense opportunity in front of us.

What major challenges does BSR face today, and what challenges do you anticipate in the years ahead?
There are three key variables: people, resources, and making good decisions. If we get those things right, we can achieve our goals. As more organizations get involved in sustainability, BSR has to maintain and strengthen its niche and define how it sets itself apart from the others. We need to maintain our authority on issues, continue to connect companies, and keep our compassion.

What advice would you give to aspiring social innovators?
One: Follow your passion. Going to law school was a good choice for me, but I saw a lot of incredibly bright people channeled into work they don’t enjoy. I am lucky to have found something I enjoy, care about, and have been reasonably successful at.

Two: Think about what the future will bring and try to get there. Ask yourself, ’What will the world need 20 years from now when I am in the prime of my career?’

Three: The world is changing at a rapid pace. Be able to maintain creativity and the flexibility to ride with the waves.

Four: Have a global outlook. Understand the global network in which we all live. There is no such thing as a purely local question.

Social entrepreneurs are notorious for their carpe diem approach to work and life. But is there value in taking your sweet time?
It is important to take the time to look for answers in unexpected places, develop new contacts, and take a chance on things, whether it be a conference, a person, or a book.

You need to leave some things to chance; it’s easy to be rigid and scheduled, but you should maintain time for thinking, especially thinking in an unorthodox way.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo: World Economic Forum

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