Different organisations have framed different definitions - although there is considerable common ground between them. My own definition is that CSR is about how companies manage the business processes to produce an overall positive impact on society.
Companies need to answer to two aspects of their operations. 1. The quality of their management - both in terms of people and processes (the inner circle). 2. The nature of, and quantity of their impact on society in the various areas.
Outside stakeholders are taking an increasing interest in the activity of the company. Most look to the outer circle - what the company has actually done, good or bad, in terms of its products and services, in terms of its impact on the environment and on local communities, or in how it treats and develops its workforce. Out of the various stakeholders, it is financial analysts who are predominantly focused - as well as past financial performance - on quality of management as an indicator of likely future performance.
The World Business Council for Sustainable Development in its publication "Making Good Business Sense" by Lord Holme and Richard Watts, used the following definition. "Corporate Social Responsibility is the continuing commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as of the local community and society at large"
The same report gave some evidence of the different perceptions of what this should mean from a number of different societies across the world. Definitions as different as "CSR is about capacity building for sustainable livelihoods. It respects cultural differences and finds the business opportunities in building the skills of employees, the community and the government" from Ghana, through to "CSR is about business giving back to society" from the Phillipines.
Traditionally in the United States, CSR has been defined much more in terms of a philanphropic model. Companies make profits, unhindered except by fulfilling their duty to pay taxes. Then they donate a certain share of the profits to charitable causes. It is seen as tainting the act for the company to receive any benefit from the giving.
The European model is much more focused on operating the core business in a socially responsible way, complemented by investment in communities for solid business case reasons. Personally, I believe this model is more sustainable because:
Social responsibility becomes an integral part of the wealth creation process - which if managed properly should enhance the competitiveness of business and maximise the value of wealth creation to society.
When times get hard, there is the incentive to practice CSR more and better - if it is a philanphropic exercise which is peripheral to the main business, it will always be the first thing to go when push comes to shove.
But as with any process based on the collective activities of communities of human beings (as companies are) there is no "one size fits all". In different countries, there will be different priorities, and values that will shape how business act.
A growing global role
One thing that is for sure - the pressure on business to play a role in social issues will continue to grow. Over the last ten years, those institutions which have grown in power and influence have been those which can operate effectively within a global sphere of operations. These are effectively the corporates and the NGOs. Those institutions which are predominantly tied to the nation state have been finding themselves increasingly frustrated at their lack of ability to shape and manage events. These include national governments, police, judiciary and others.
There is a growing interest, therefore, in businesses taking a lead in addressing those issues in which they have an interest where national government have failed to come up with a solution. The focus Unilever has on supporting a sustainable fisheries approach is one example. Using the power of their supply chain, such companies are placed to have a real influence. National governments negotiating with each other have come up with no solutions at all, and ever-depleting fish stocks. That is not to say businesses will necessarily provide the answers - but awareness is growing that they are occasionally better placed to do so than any other actors taking an interest.
Business in the Community bases its whole approach on the "positive impact" strapline.You can download the "Making Good Business Sense" report at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development website.