Corporate Citizenship 2.0: Leading the Way to a Skill-sharing Economy

By Tom Zara

From climate change and water scarcity to labor abuses and economic disparity, even those with only a rudimentary grasp of the issues at play recognize that the challenges we face today are serious and complex. Feeling pressure to accelerate the pace of change from consumers, employees, and other stakeholders, leading brands are realizing that reprioritization is necessary. Whether it’s about future-proofing your business or meeting consumer expectations, Corporate Citizenship isn’t just about “being good” anymore—21st century brands have to step up to solve hard problems.

The new approach involves restoring dynamic balance to the system—and a new business paradigm that puts Corporate Citizenship, not on the periphery, but at the center of business. The ethos of this new paradigm is one of “enlightened self-interest” and shared values. It is a paradigm in which labor and resources are utilized ethically and responsibly, growth is achieved in smarter, more efficient ways, and both resources and communities are replenished, rather than continually depleted.

The pressures of competition, the need to mitigate supply chain risks, and the desire to streamline operations initially fueled Corporate Citizenship’s first wave. But sobering future probabilities, the demands and shifting preferences of consumers, the expectations of investors, and the scrutiny of regulators have mobilized numerous brands to put greater effort into addressing their social and environmental impacts. However, the next wave of Corporate Citizenship will require brands to go further, taking a more conscious role in the shaping and transformation of society.

Where there’s a will and skills—there’s a way

In the past, Corporate Citizenship was typically a quiet commitment. If you didn’t know about it, then it didn’t exist —and, therefore it couldn’t be scrutinized. However, now that consumers and prospective employees are using CSR as an indicator of an organization’s moral fiber and commitment to purpose, companies are realizing Corporate Citizenship is not just about a glossy report, but something that can be seen and experienced.

What brands must achieve today is an impact everyone can feel. Writing a check to support the arts is wonderful, but how many actually feel that impact? On the other hand, nearly 800 million people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water. Now that is an area where a brand can make an enormous impact. The problem is, when we think about a challenge that big, there is a tendency to get overwhelmed, to think that the issue is so daunting it’s beyond resolution. But then, there are others who are saying, “I wish I knew how to solve that problem,” and that’s when companies should step in and take action—the will is there and so are the skills.

Brands are a tremendous resource. Corporations have incredible skills they’ve used to evolve their own businesses. Whether the skills are technological, creative, logistical, or financial, the way you democratize prosperity is by sharing those skills. To solve the world’s greatest problems, you’ve got to do more than just fund NGOs. You’ve got to provide new financial models, operational models, and new HR payment systems so that the organizations on the ground can more effectively deliver outcome and impact. The organizations that embrace this idea are the ones that will have a much more compelling Corporate Citizenship story to tell because they’re not only working to solve a problem, they’re also leveraging the thing that made them successful—for the benefit of others.

Traditionally, when we think of a company’s success, we think in terms of performance metrics, but success and prosperity can be bigger than that. It can extend beyond the walls of your own institution and touch others. Corporations need to understand that they possess a gift, a powerful potential created by their entire workforce that can be redeployed in a way that makes a difference and effectively changes things for the better.

Right now, there is an army of people out there—people working to sequester carbon, feed the hungry, save imperiled species—but many of them don’t have MBAs or access to MIT technology. Caring, compassionate people find their way to rural parts of Africa and Asia, ready to save lives, but they’re often not connected to the business skills and creative talent that would make them even more successful at what they do. Corporations today have an opportunity to deploy their unique talents, skills, and resources in a way that builds and fortifies the resources that are already being put in place to create positive change.

Brands are the agents of change

At Interbrand we talk about the power of brands and the potential of brands to change the world. To fully appreciate this potential, we have to examine the context within which a brand sits: society. Each business in the marketplace can be thought of as one cell of production in a larger social organism; together, global industries constitute a mega-machine of production. Like a pump of gigantic dimensions, the collective activity of brands sets flows of energy and money into motion that course through the veins of the economic system. When the economic machine accelerates or runs out of control, it consumes more energy, more material, more knowledge—and more waste products are deposited in the surrounding environment. The task of the New Corporate Citizen is to stabilize this flow of energy and manage the impact on people and the planet wherever possible.

While the new purpose of business is to keep the flow of money, goods, and services flowing in a responsible manner, the purpose of brands involves the same but also has other dimensions. Brands act on the psyche. Brands influence. Brands educate. Brands change behavior. Brands inspire. Brands focus energy. A business, elevated by the power and purpose of its brand, can bring together various economic factors, resources, and skill sets, organize them, and use them to not only maximize profit, but to bring the world back into balance.

Tom Zara ( is Executive Director of Strategy, Interbrand New York, and Global Practice Leader for Corporate Citizenship