by Ann Charles

roger-sterlingWhile catching up with old episodes of “Mad Men,” I was brought up short by a show-stopping quote from Roger Sterling. Sterling, the senior partner at the Sterling Cooper Agency, tells Creative Director Don Draper that he’s been invited to join an arts foundation board. Looking puzzled, Don asks “What does that mean?”

Without skipping a beat, Roger says “Philanthropy is the gateway to power.”

Then he elaborated: “There are few people who decide what will happen in our world. You have been invited to join them–pull back the curtain and take your seat.”

And so it was. For generations, traditional philanthropy was the exclusive domain of the wealthy and powerful. Many of the great benefactors of the early 20th century made their fortunes from the railroad, steel, and oil industries. These industrial giants sat on boards of nonprofit foundations that they themselves established to oversee how their treasure troves would be dispensed. They determined which causes were worthy. Much of the philanthropic activity was focused on large, sweeping gifts to benefit big institutions like the New York City Public Library, the ballet, universities, and art museums.

How times have changed. Many of today’s entrepreneurs are building their businesses based on the idea of fulfilling a new kind of social contract, one in which organizations voluntarily take responsibility for the “triple bottom line”: people, planet, and profits. While corporate social responsibility (CSR) is not a new concept, it has new meaning in a Web 2.0 world. For consumers, the Internet and social media deliver a kaleidoscope view of a company’s corporate culture. Given this new insight, consumers are exercising their right to patronize companies with values that mirror their own.

Companies today have to address questions that are external to their core business. Does the organization have a moral compass? Does it support worthy causes? Is it a good corporate citizen? Stepping back and taking a fresh look also gives brands a great opportunity to redefine themselves and optimize for the future. It should come as no surprise to corporate America that CSR has become a talent magnet, a sales magnet, and an investor magnet.

How is CSR a talent magnet? Research is revealing the none too startling news that people want to work for caring and ethical employers. According to last year’s study by Kelly Services Inc., acting in a socially and environmentally responsible manner is what it takes to gain top talent. Nearly 90 percent of respondents said they are more likely to work for an organization perceived as ethically and socially responsible. A more recent study opened eyes by revealing that one-third of workers would take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible firm.

How is CSR a sales magnet? Globally conscious consumers are changing the rules about consumerism. A 2010 CSR Branding Survey noted that consumers are much more likely to purchase a product with an “added social benefit.” We are experiencing a trend in which consumers want companies to meet their needs and simultaneously have a positive impact on society. And why not? Enlightened consumers want their food to be organic, their coffee free trade, their purchases sustainable, and everything to be green. They are even willing to pay a premium for goods from socially responsible companies.

How is CSR an investment magnet? A slew of books and articles have come out recently that articulate the value of socially responsible investing, including the ubiquitous “Socially Responsible Investing for Dummies.” The premise is that companies can do well financially by doing good. SKS Microfinance is an example of this concept. A recent New York Times article noted that SKS is aiming to raise $344 million in an initial public offering. This is being closely watched to determine if big profits can be made through the small micro-loans that are changing the lives of thousands of entrepreneurs in the developing world. The early financial results looks good. Socially responsible investment funds largely outperformed their benchmarks in 2009, according to Social Investment Forum data.

The corporate giants of our time are starting to follow in the footsteps of their industrialist predecessors. While yesterday’s philanthropists were Getty, Guggenheim, Astor, and Carnegie, today’s benefactors are Gates, Buffet, Turner, and Moore. These great leaders are working from a platform of social responsibility, and have started to address some of the most intractable problems of our time such as poverty, global illiteracy, and disease.

The next natural evolution of this trend is the new “social enterprise,” a social mission-driven organization that applies market-based strategies to achieve a social purpose. In Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 essay “The Gospel of Wealth,” he stated that business and the wealthy are the caretakers of our future society. At the time Carnegie’s ideas were the exception rather than the rule. Today, many small and large companies are still new to CSR. If the social enterprise enjoys financial success, CSR can become a fundamental principle for businesses rather than an afterthought.

To use a quote from Winston Churchill that even Don Draper would appreciate, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

Ann Charles is CEO of BRANDfog, offering social media and Corporate Social Responsibility strategy for CEOs, and founder of The Great Leaders Conference, celebrating Great Leaders in CSR, Social Advocacy and Sustainability.

Post to Twitter