Geri Stengel

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The Definition of Social Responsibility Needs to Encompass Both Our Business and Personal Side

The general term "social responsibility" is defined as the obligation corporations, organizations, and individuals have to society.

These days, the definition of social responsibility seems to include everything from personal health choices so you don't add to the country's health care burden to providing health care benefits to employees.

definition of social responsibility, socially responsible, personal social responsibility, social enterprises, corporate social responsibilityIn other words, the term "social responsibility" is bandied about in all sorts of situations. It is applied to personal behavior and to the behavior of the organization, from where you buy your food to where you buy your raw materials.

As non profit leaders and social entrepreneurs, we want to think of ourselves as being on the side of the angels. But can our social consciousness, our definition of social responsibility, stop at the office door?

To some extent, the definition of social responsibility has to include both personal and corporate social responsibility.

Individuals with a sense of responsibility to society are the catalysts for social enterprises and corporate changes. Individual social responsibility may lead to making chocolate in Madagascar or new ways of raising money for non profits or to world-wide consciousness raising effort on climate change.

These efforts, made by individuals, push larger corporations and whole communities to make changes.

More Than Changing Our Lifestyles
To fit even the most general definition of social responsibility, we have to change our lifestyles, as well as our business styles, whether it is driving less, setting the air conditioner a little higher and the heater a little lower, recycling ... well, you know the list.

President Barack Obama has called upon Americans to take more personal responsibility for the health and well being of society, whether by incurring less credit card debt or by being better parents. These individual actions have an impact on the economy and on communities, hence responsibility for one's personal affairs becomes a form of social responsibility, just as prudent money-management and fair workplace rules are forms of corporate social responsibility.

Beyond the Golden Rule
Arvind Devila, author of the book Personal Social Responsibility, starts his definition of social responsibility for both businesses and individuals with a variation of the Golden Rule, the "Do unto others as you'd have others do unto you" one.

He then moves on to an instruction sheet of sorts:

  • recognize how your behavior affects others, and hold yourself accountable for your actionshave
  • integrity and act on what you know is morally right.
  • be aware of the impact you have on everything and everyone around you, both locally and globally.

Those are simple but not easy goals.

It's About the Every Day Things
These definitions of social responsibility – both Obama's and Devila's – imply that being environmentally conscious by itself is not enough. 

The complete definition of social responsibility for both businesses and individuals seems to include:

  • how we treat the people we meet every day
  • how we handle our finances
  • how we conduct ourselves at home and at work
  • whether we minimize our negative environmental impacts

... and I would add: whether we make an effort to actively improve our communities.

That's a little more than the Golden Rule but not much. And, yes, we may have to change our lifestyles and our business styles a little ... or even a lot.

Be a Good Butterfly

Being a socially responsible person or corporation is about big ideas: making your community a pleasant place to live; contributing to a sustainable economy; and rolling back climate change.

It is about the butterfly effect.

Are we the butterflies?

How do you define social responsibility? Do small things matter or do socially responsible actions only count if done on a large scale or by a lot of people? Is individual social responsibility part of corporate social responsibility?