EXECUTIVE INSIGHT: Trust in the Tried and Tested
26 March 2014 at 9:59 am
In the midst of tough times, including the recent announcement that manufacturing of the Toyota brand would cease in Australia, Pro Bono Australia News spoke with Manager of the Toyota Foundation, Katarina Persic, to discuss the company’s CSR future.
Car giant Toyota does not promise to reinvent the wheel in the Corporate Social Responsibility arena, but it does promise results.
The global manufacturer emphasises making meaningful change where outcomes can actually be achieved, through capacity building of Not for Profits, corporate philanthropy and partnerships.
Underpinning its CSR strategy are the key themes of Community, Road Safety and Education and Environment, set by Toyota’s parent company in Japan for every head office around the world to implement.
In Australia, Toyota’s community engagement is managed by Public Affairs Manager Katarina Persic.
Persic says the company’s strategies – evidently methodical and considered – are working well for the company she describes as “probably a more conservative type of company” by global CSR standards.
Amidst the changing CSR landscape where new trends like Shared Value are emerging, Persic is a strong voice for working towards meaningful but achievable goals as a corporate presence in the community.
Flexible CSR strategy has proven key in enabling Toyota to achieve its objectives of real and measurable results.
Recent times have been tough for the company in Australia. The recent announcement that Toyota would cease manufacturing in Australia is set to leave workers in Melbourne’s Western suburbs jobless.
The plight of community members weighs heavily.
“We met straight away with the council. We’re really aware of the implications there,” she says.
“It’s in my head every day.”
Assessing the role of CSR in the midst of community trauma has not proven easy.
“Every company contributes locally to where they feel it is relevant,” she says.
“Defining our areas [themes] like we have … you build your own boundaries.
“No-one has told me, ‘your stuff should cease’. If anything, we should probably be even more visible.”
Persic says in a company the size of Toyota, CSR activity is never under threat, but may be scaled up or down according to external circumstances.
“We’re lucky in a bigger company. It’s just the amount, and what’s the right amount?,” she says.
“Even when the GFC hit, you recognise that you need to stay there. Corporates did everything in their power so that the money still went to the Not for Profits.
“I just had less money for a few little small things.”
Adaptation of strategy to geographic region also provides extra flexibility.
An emphasis on the core theme of road safety might not be a high priority in some developing countries, for example.
“In developed countries we focus on research and driver development and education,” Persic says.
“In countries like India, it might be a focus on food safety…you can do things like that if it’s more beneficial.”
Persic is emphatic about the direction she receives from the global office – “don’t reinvent the wheel, focus on building capacity with existing Not for Profits,” she relays.
Partnerships have emerged as a key means for Toyota to achieve this objective and engage with community-based organisations.
“We try to see what they do, and what we can develop,” she says.
“It’s about capacity building, that’s the thing, not sticking our logo on something.”
Toyota starts simply – working to help to fill the holes where Not for Profits require assistance but may not be able to take on extra staff due to resource constraints, such as impact measurement or communications.
The company’s current major partnership centres around providing a road safety day for students in years ten and eleven to promote attitudinal change.
Persic flags a growing trend she observes in many companies, where the public is becoming an arbiter of partnership decisions.
“There’s a lot more outsiders having a say. Many companies now ask the public ‘which Not for Profit should we partner with?’”
It is an arduous process that Persic insists does not come easily, and should be approached with care and due process.
“It’s a long process…it took me five years to get the road safety partnership,” she says.
“We’re currently working on a formal process we go through when we partner with someone.”
Some key criteria are currently used to select partners at an Australian scale.They must be national Not for Profits, with an ability to contribute in all states.
The process is extensive, with a one to two year experimental phase, where parties embark on a mission to understand one another. A Memorandum of Understanding, or ultimately a contract, results. Parties also set one another KPIs.
Even then, Persic says the success or partnerships sometimes “all depends on the people,” as organisations cycle through staff members.
“They [KPIs] are not always achieved,” Persic muses. “Things happen.”
Indeed, she says some of her greatest learning opportunities as CSR professional have come from failed partnerships, providing her with the knowledge of what to look for in future collaborations.
“It is important to see what’s being achieved with the money, not just giving it to a big black hole,” she says.
“When you see that the issues aren’t being fixed, and you realise this is how they work..I can then say, ‘this needs to be on my radar.”
Competition and Collegiality
Persic has found value in interacting with her counterparts in other corporates, but sees the CSR space as a platform for sharing knowledge, rather than competition.
“Networking is key – you are in a sense isolated and doing something in the company nobody else has expertise in,” she says.
“It’s really nice, I enjoy the collegiality across all the companies.”
The number of corporate voices at events and the dynamism of networks and forums varies, she says.
“[At events] it’s the big companies with more resources,” she says.
“You do see those teams ebb and flow a bit.
“In Melbourne it’s petered off a bit.”
Persic says given the subjectivity of CSR and the notion of achievement, competition and comparisons between corporations is not productive.
‘It’s a double-edged sword. I don’t think competition in this space is good,” she says.
“You’re not comparing apples with apples.
“Maybe if there was some way of measuring depth or capacity building, I think that’s a better way to do it.”
She also distinguishes her work from that which may be a platform for positive brand reputation.
Internal requirements place no burden on her to provide exposure for brand.
“I don’t have any of that,” she says. “I don’t have a KPI that this stuff has to sell cars.”
“Sometimes I think there’s so much advertising around, I wonder, ‘what do people notice?”
“I think consumers are already inundated with all the causes.”
Toyota is currently drafting on CSR strategies for 2017 onwards.
“We are doing what we can to innovate,” Persic says.
“We are asking, ‘will we do new things? Should we work with the dealers more, with dealer giving for example?’.”
She sees a trend towards employee grants – where corporations fund the social pursuits of their staff – for example – a day of volunteering at a charity.
“I think for people, the idea of philanthropy starts with their views of the world and its needs…philanthropy starts with what’s around you,” she says.
“There’s a bigger view [among staff] that the corporate then gives … it starts their philanthropy journey.”
Persic believes corporate philanthropy still has a role to play in CSR programs, despite trends toward the integration of social responsibility into business strategy and purpose.
“Shared Value – it’s there, it’s talked about,” she says.
“I thought maybe we were a bit behind but when I heard [originator of the Creating Shared Value concept] Kramer speak … he acknowledged there were some problems in the world that can’t be fixed with Shared Value.”
Persic says the creation of Shared Value, while noble and logical, is not always achievable.
“Of course you’d do that if you could…an outpost in Australia might not be able to do that,” she says.
“There’s still a space for philanthropy.
“You can give the world, but you’ve got to define what you give and we’ve done that – and it makes sense.”
Read Toyota’s Corporate Community profile here.