Corporate social responsibility plays an important role in the pro bono movement. To discuss the field of CSR and pro bono, here’s an interview with Kara Hartnett Hurst.
Kara Hartnett Hurst is the East Coast Managing Director BSR, a leading corporate responsibility organization with a global network of over 250 member companies. Kara specializes in facilitation of collaborative industry efforts, stakeholder engagement, corporate transparency, responsible supply chain management, and strategic CSR policy setting. She is also a founding member of the groundbreaking Electronic Industry Citizen Coalition.
Let’s start you off with a softball to ease you in to this interview- who is the best looking guy in the field of pro bono service?
Oh- let me think about that one (laughs). Yeah- it’d have to be my husband [Taproot President, Founder, and Esteemed Interview-Question-Writer Aaron Hurst]. Shocking (laughs).
You co-authored the children’s book “Mommy and Daddy Do It Pro Bono” with your husband this year- how did that come about?
As parents there really wasn’t a way to talk to our kids about what we do. We’re not in professions that are really straight forward like doctors or lawyers or something that you can kind of point to- firemen or ballerinas. With both of our jobs and the fields that we’re in, things can tend to get a little bit dry and serious. I spend a lot of my time talking about the doomsday scenario around the environment, human rights, labor violations, and corporate misdoings- and I think with volunteering and pro bono it can be the same. Combining all of our interests as parents as well as career-wise, it really pointed towards a kids’ book. We also don’t have any time in our lives (laughs)- so the shorter the better!
When you were a kid, did you want CSR guru when you grew up? You mentioned not being a ballerina, but what did you want to be?
(Laughs.) You know, I always thought I would be a senator. The first job I had in college, I worked for Senator Moynihan in the Chrysler Building here in New York, and I loved it, but I also saw how much of that job was about fundraising and how much of that job didn’t actually entail the substantive policy work that I was interested in. That started my- disillusionment (laughs) with politics. I tried a couple of different positions and decided to work more directly in policy.
A lot of people talk about CSR, volunteering, corporate philanthropy, and pro bono interchangeably- what do you see as the difference?
The most simplistic way that I can put it is that with the field of CSR, it’s not about what you do with the money that you make- it’s about how you make the money in the first place. I’m less interested in how a corporation is spending money in a community- I expect them to do that; that’s great; it’s definitely something we need. I’m interested in how they made that money. If they made all of the money they’re giving away by mistreating their workers, sourcing irresponsibly, and creating products we don’t need, that is the core issue. It’s not just about giving to organizations that work in the community.
What are some examples of breakthroughs that you’ve seen in the field of CSR?
One of the big breakthroughs for companies- and I see this in a number of different corporations across the industries that we work in- is conceptualizing corporate social responsibility not just as something that they must do but as something that really can bring a tremendous amount of value to the business. You can create a better bottom line by operating responsibly. Operating responsibly can bring new thinking; it can bring new perspectives. It’s not just about saying, ‘ok we’re doing what we want to do, and nobody’s going to campaign against us’- it’s also about bringing in innovation.
You have started on a number of innovative industry collaborations. Why were these competitors willing to collaborate in this setting and around these issues?
The do it because they’re much better going at it together than they are alone. One example of collaboration is the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition. That group now is a group of 43 electronics companies and electronics supply chains that have addressed environmental and labor issues together. No one company is going to solve human rights issues in the electronics supply chain alone no matter how good their code of conduct is, how good their auditing is, how good their supplier relationship is- the issues are just too big.
Companies understand that even though they may compete against each other in the marketplace, these issues are about leveling the playing field for workers, for communities- they’re about bettering practice overall within a supply chain where there are multiple companies working with the same suppliers.
How has the field of CSR change in the last ten years since you got in the game?
There’s been a big change in terms of the level of integration we see. In the last economic downturn we’ve been experiencing, people always ask me- have companies been cutting their CSR programs? What we’ve seen is that in companies that really understand CSR and do it well, there’s not a whole function you can just lop off. It would be like me saying they have to cut their sales function or their HR. Operating responsibly is good for business and we’ve definitely seen greater levels of integration.
So, where is the field of CSR going in the next 10 years?
I think one key is companies understanding more about aligning their public policy positions with their citizenship agendas- those two things can’t remain as disconnected as they have been. Another issue is around board governance- aligning sustainability with board governance, getting boards to ask better questions about company operations. Another is integration of CSR with enterprise risk management- companies looking across the whole organization in terms of how they manage risk, looking to be more global and anticipatory and incorporating sustainability issues into risk management.
Where do you see pro bono service fitting in with CSR?
Well I think the idea that companies are getting smarter about how they run, smarter about how they incorporate CSR into their operations, really translates to how companies are approaching pro bono and volunteering. People have their own agendas; they have lives outside of their work places, however there’s a tremendous need to recognize our professional skills and understand the value those skills might have in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits also need professional level skills, and they’re incredibly hard to access. I think that realization is becoming a lot more main-stream.
A lot of business professionals are seeking to get into CSR- what are a few things all professionals can do to be CSR change agents?
Start small- start within the company you’re at and connect to the larger conversation. Start looking what changes you can make; be a maverick internally; advocate for change. Look to what other businesses are doing and think about how you company can do things differently- where can you innovate to lessen your environmental footprint? Where can the policies you advocate for align with corporate citizenship? There’s a lot of information out there and a lot of people who have great ideas, so I would just say get involved.