Hands on the CSR wheel

Updated: 2012-10-12 08:50

By Todd Balazovic (China Daily)

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Hands on the CSR wheel

Hands on the CSR wheel

Shanghai organization looks to bridge gap between companies, volunteers in China

For those of the philanthropic spirit in Shanghai, finding an outlet to volunteer and do good was almost impossible 10 years ago.

While there were plenty of people willing to volunteer and dozens of organizations in desperate need of help, the two groups often failed to communicate.

Step in Richard Brubaker, founder of Hands On in China, which works with charities, corporations and citizens to help coordinate the efforts of volunteers in Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu.

"We work with people, students and companies to help find opportunities where they can help out," he says.

"The opportunities range from donating money, volunteering time or offering other forms of support."

The American corporate social responsibility guru has not limited his efforts to simply helping coordinate volunteers. He also holds several titles in the realm of CSR, from adjunct professor at the China Europe International Business School as well as the founder and managing director of Collective Responsibility, a CSR consulting company.

Brubaker, however, was not always the China CSR whiz he is today.

When he first set out to China from the US in 2002 armed with a master's degree in international management, his intention was to stay for a month to study the language.

"Initially it wasn't a long-term thing," he says. "I was just supposed to be here for a short period." But nine years later he is at the center of Shanghai's CSR scene.

His foray into the world of volunteer work began while he was in the United States, when Brubaker would take time off work and studies to team up with US NGOs to give something back to the community.

"I would do the basic volunteer things, you know, habitat for humanity, helping lay sandbags - that sort of thing," he says.

It was not until he made the move to China in 2002 to advance his career that he realized the important role that volunteering would play in his life.

After settling down, Brubaker sought to volunteer for dozens of NGOs working in China, but could not find anywhere or anyone to help direct his efforts.

"There were really very few people working in the area of volunteering or CSR," he says.

Brubaker joined the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, as vice-chairman of the CSR committee.

Working with the chamber helped him realize the need to coordinate volunteer efforts, and through his contacts he began helping a small group of friends find volunteer work.

"It just sort of grew from there," he says. "More people became interested and it just continued expanding."

What started off as just a handful now employs 20 full-time staff and more than 200 project managers overseeing about 25,000 active volunteers. Hands On's offices now expand beyond Shanghai, to places such as Chengdu and Beijing.

While working with Hands On helped fulfill Brubaker's desire to volunteer, it also sparked his interest in China's CSR, which barely existed at that time.

"The idea of CSR was still quite young in China, and many companies needed help figuring out how to get involved," he says.

Once again, Brubaker took matters into his own hands and set up Collective Responsibility in 2009 to help develop and design CSR and sustainability programs for companies in China.

His client list runs the entire gamut from training exercises for Starbucks to developing volunteer programs for Abbott University.

He has also joined the academic side by teaching management sustainability and responsibility leadership at CEIBS.

"My role now is split between the context of helping define CSR and working in the field," he says.

While CSR has advanced quite quickly over the last few years, Brubaker says the biggest challenge facing China's corporate scene is defining exactly what the words mean.

"That's one of my big focuses right now - how far do you go before you stop calling it CSR and start calling it business?" he says.

He gives the example of senior healthcare - one of the hotter topics of conversation in CSR circles.

While many companies are trying to help China's aging population, either through volunteering or financial contributions, should funding a senior housing project that returns money be considered social responsibility or is it business?

"It's a hard one to answer," he says.

Brubaker says there is also a renewed focus on helping Chinese companies develop international standards of CSR. Though Chinese companies have long held responsibility programs in the past, there is still a distinction between how a foreign multinational and a Chinese company does "good".

"Chinese companies tend to be a bit heavier on financial giving. They like to have the media spotlight on their charitable activities," he says.

"Foreign companies don't try to get press as much - they still do of course - but it's not as blatant as some of the Chinese companies."

He says that shying away from the media spotlight on the part of foreign companies is partly due to China's zealous Internet users who hold companies accountable for the CSR programs.

The result is more and more companies in China focusing their CSR efforts inwards, working on their own activities - such as better treatment of employees or more sustainable manufacturing processes - than the more overt volunteering and charitable contributions.

"Today's heroes can easily become tomorrow's villains," he says.

"Companies don't want to be judged in the court of public opinion. This is creating an environment for more internal CSR work."

He says the shift benefits both companies and employees.

"When you look at the companies that are having the hardest time hiring, you find that they're the worst performers - they're the ones that require overtime, pay their employees three months late and belittle their employees."

And while the practice may be relatively new to China, Brubaker and an army of others are volunteering their time and energy to making the nation's CSR more modern.

"People are learning, they're getting better," he says.


(China Daily 10/12/2012 page6)