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From CSR to PSR: Lessons from the Pandemic

March 24, 2020
By Bob Axelrod

I have asthma — one of the underlying conditions that elevates the health risks of COVID-19. And my son is preparing to be a physician assistant. So, the challenges the world faces today are quite personal to me.

For decades, I’ve helped companies become better corporate citizens — and, as a result, improved their businesses and reputations. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), a term coined more than three generations ago by American economist Howard Bowen, is now baked into strategic decision-making for many corporations. Today, together with countless others around the world, I depend on individuals to bring a similar thoughtful and responsible approach to daily life.

If we glean nothing else from our current life-altering circumstances, let us agree that our institutions can only do so much. And this extends far beyond responding in the moment to a highly visible crisis.

While we’ve made incremental progress, real change remains elusive on key environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. No country is on track to achieve all 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the 2030 target. Even the best performers fall well short on many critical concerns. And, of course, today’s pandemic looms large going forward.

If governments, the private sector, NGOs and other institutions that endorse the SDGs aren’t getting the job done, then who will?

Sometimes it takes an existential threat to illuminate a core truth.

So much is up to you and me.

To lessen the devastation of our present situation and make long-term progress on many other fronts, we need to usher in a new era of PSR — personal social responsibility.  

Unlike Bowen, I haven’t coined a new term. PSR has been the subject of books, Tedx presentations and even research studies. But the concept itself has yet to go mainstream in the same way as CSR.

So, what is PSR and how can we best practice it? It’s different than altruism, which the Merriam Webster Dictionary defines as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.” Rather, PSR is more akin to CSR. Companies act responsibly not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s good for business. The key words here are “act responsibly.” PSR isn’t about belief, it’s about action. If each and every one of us acted within our own PSR framework, the world would be a lot better off and so would we as individuals.

We can learn a lot from company CSR efforts. The most obvious and timely example is the massive number of corporations that have done right by their employees and instituted work-from-home policies to avoid spreading the coronavirus before governments began mandating shelter-in-place. It’s common sense that when your job sends you home for something like this, you should also heed the warnings of health and government officials to avoid large, densely packed gatherings. As crowded bars and beaches have recently illustrated, a lot of people didn’t accept that message. Many of them and their friends and families, and perhaps even you and I, will suffer unnecessarily as a result.

The flipside of this example are the people who not only took proper precautions, but also went out of their way to help others — checking in on neighbors and delivering food and essential supplies to those who couldn’t get out. And how about our frontline healthcare workers!

Being proficient at PSR needn’t be complicated. Small acts of personal responsibility undertaken by billions of people add up to real change. Tweaking one’s own lifestyle to change consumption habits, buying products that have smaller social and environmental footprints, giving back to our communities and, yes, social distancing — these simple acts benefit us all.

But PSR does take some forethought and planning. Otherwise, we run the risk of sporadic, rather than deliberate, ongoing action. Let’s take a page from formal CSR platforms to craft our PSR strategies. Companies have plans, policies, goals and activities in place to deliver on their CSR commitments. We expect it of them. Why not hold ourselves to the same high standard?

So, stay home as much as possible during these challenging times and take to heart the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi:

“The future depends on what you do today.”