Thursday, March 15, 2012

CSR: Altruism vs. Enlightened Self-interest

By Jessica Friend

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) can be justified either in terms of altruism or enlightened self-interest. On the one hand, definitions of CSR typically contain altruistic elements – such as unselfish concern for the welfare of others – requiring corporations to acknowledge their obligations to stakeholders. On the other hand, enlightened self-interest advances the belief that ethical behaviour can be good for business – for example, gaining a competitive edge by adding value to an organisation’s products or increasing the company’s public reputation.

Of these two approaches, it appears that enlightened self-interest is favoured most strongly by companies. For instance, over 70 percent of CEOs interviewed by Springpoint Consultancy agreed that CSR was essential for making a profit.

To illustrate this approach, Google’s CSR strategy is openly motivated by enlightened self-interest. Hence, according Axel Marrtinez, assistant treasurer for Google, the company invested US$28 million in 240 affordable housing units for low-income families in Boston, Massachusetts, not only to be a good corporate citizen, but also to benefit from an improvement in societal standing by being seen to contribute to social problem solving.

Often, CSR programs like Google’s are justified by enlightened self-interest enthusiasts purely on the basis of their utilitarian benefits – in this case, the material benefits of low-cost housing enjoyed by Boston residents is equal to the reputation gains and societal standing afforded to Google. Hence, CSR beneficiaries are viewed only in terms of their intrinsic value for the company.

This is where the donor-recipient relationship can seem exploitative and enlightened self-interest can damage the integrity of CSR. To reduce cynicism and to avoid producing exploitative-prone CSR strategies, altruism must be embedded within the corporation’s core purpose and the interests of all stakeholders must be taken into account, not only those of shareholders.

Aygaz, Turkey’s leading gas provider and a CIPR Excellence award winner, is a good example of a company with altruistic orientation. Their Climate Change Education Program aimed to increase awareness amongst Turks of global warming. Aygaz centred their program around the recipient, involving their customers in pilot projects, eventually achieving a 51 percent increase in climate change awareness. The 21 percent increase sale in gas appliances was an added bonus, rather than the sole focus of CSR activity.

Aygaz showed that CSR strategies motivated by genuine concern for the common good are less open for criticism. Accountability of CSR strategies is improved when beneficiaries are actively involved within the CSR design process and are seen as ‘ends’ in themselves, not simply a ‘means to an end’.

In conclusion, strong CSR strategies are those where altruism is deeply embedded within the organisation and places beneficiaries at the centre of programs, increasing both organisational accountability and transparency. Although enlightened self-interest provides a logical business reason for pursuing CSR strategies, these tend to produce weak programs open to accusations of ‘greenwashing’, PR-spin or stakeholder manipulation.


CIPR, 2011, ‘Excellence Award Winner Case Study – Aygaz with Lobby PR’ [Online] Available at [accessed 5th January 2012]

Godelnik, R., 2011, ‘Google Investing in Low-Income Housing – Good Cause, Bad CSR?’ [Online] Available at [accessed 5th January 2012]