Summit Makes Social Responsibility Priority No. 1

By Aliah D. Wright May 14, 2008

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

Overwhelming the world for change was the cornerstone of the inaugural Global Summit on Social Responsibility, held April 30 through May 2, 2008, in National Harbor, Md., and sponsored by ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership.

Hundreds of attendees from associations worldwide convened in person and online in what the summit’s facilitator called “the largest social responsibility initiative in the world” to discuss and implement plans to address such issues as hunger, disease, poverty, homelessness, clean water and climate control.

“We are a crowded planet,” keynote speaker and noted economist Jeffrey Sachs told conference attendees from the Washington, D.C., area and 14 connected sites across the United States, as well as Canada, South America, Europe, the Middle East, Australia, and Asia. “There are 6.7 billion people on Earth—10 times more than the start of the industrial era 200 years ago.”

And more people mean more problems.

Food and gas prices have soared because “a growing world economy raised demand faster than we could respond,” Sachs noted.Scientists are telling us to watch what we’re doing because [those resources] are unsustainable.”

He added that a crowded planet “with rapid economic growth … means a rate of resource use on the planet that boggles the mind.”

Using the appreciative inquiry model, developed by David Cooperrider, professor of social entrepreneurship at Case Western Reserve University, conference participants didn’t just listen to speakers. They broke up into groups—in person and online—and formulated strategies to initiate programs for change.

‘Not Just Charity’

It was his intention for participants to come away from the summit with plans, not just “words on paper,” said Cooperrider, also the summit’s facilitator.

To that end, Cooperrider told SHRM Online, one group crafted a charter with the United Nations to partner to create principles that can be adopted globally to eradicate poverty and improve the environment. Another group formed a clean water initiative; others are developing websites where associations can share skills and ideas about social responsibility and actionable plans. In all, 23 projects and initiatives emerged from the summit.

“It’s not just charity,” Cooperrider said. “There’s a revolution happening today—the sustainability revolution. It’s a part of core corporate strategy. We have every innovation to solve our global issues. We just lack organization.

“We cannot eradicate poverty and create a culture of peace throughout the world without great business leadership,” he added.

“Nobody can solve these problems on their own, and businesses are not charities,” Sachs acknowledged. However, “businesses can be businesses but be a part of the solution.”

Sachs, who is director of The Earth Institute and professor of health policy and management at Columbia University, said he penned his new book, “Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet,” because he is “painfully aware of how many solutions there are to these problems. When we produce pollution that affects climate change” the consequences are dramatic but not impossible to solve.

Louder Than Words

He pointed to UNICEF as an example of an organization solving a global issue. UNICEF was able to reduce measles deaths by more than 90 percent in Africa because the organization was able to bring the vaccine to the continent. “In 1984, smallpox was solved and it was the first time a global disease had been eradicated,” Cooperrider added. “It can be done.”

Many corporations have made social responsibility part of their corporate culture. Whole Foods, Toyota (think Prius), Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and even ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s have sustainability programs.

The American Chemical Society (ACS), with 160,000 members worldwide, has set as a strategic goal for 2008 and beyond to be a global leader in enlisting the world’s scientific professionals to address, through chemistry, the challenges facing the world. Since its 1990 acquisition of the Green Chemistry Institute, ACS has worked to find ways to design the next generation of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and materials that will not create problems that will need to be solved later, Mark Golden, chairman of the Center for Association Leadership said.

“As chemistry professionals, we want to do our part to make the world a better place,” said Robert Rich, assistant secretary, strategic planning and evaluation. He called it an important part of realizing the ACS vision of "improving people's lives through the transforming power of chemistry."

According to The Washington Post, Marriott most recently donated $2 million to protect the Brazilian rainforest. David Marriott, senior vice president of global sales, told conference participants that the hotel chain has gone “green,” encourages recycling and lower energy consumption, and builds homes around the world.

Many companies now recognize the importance of going green, and it helps that many corporations are following each others’ examples, Kimberly Lewis, vice president of conference and events at the U.S. Green Building Council, said as she observed a session at the conference on ending poverty.

And in a world where nearly 10 million children die annually from treatable complaints like pneumonia and diarrhea, according to recent statistics by Save the Children, associations are hoping that the summit’s impact can be felt worldwide.

“We have a responsibility to not think about our own self interests,” Lewis said. “But realizing that what we do also affects others. Because at the end of the day, there’s the business case, but there’s also it being the right thing to do.”

Aliah D. Wright is manager of SHRM Online’s Ethics and Sustainability Focus Area.

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