The FINANCIAL -- Interview with R. Michael Cowgill, President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia and President of Georgian American University (GAU)
Q. From your experience, why is CSR crucial for both business and society?
A. There are a lot of different ways to define CSR, but put simply it is - doing the right thing for the right reasons. That’s a simple enough answer, however it involves being socially responsible. That means that as an organization you make decisions, whether operational or financial, in a socially responsible manner. Why is it so important? There is the concept that when you look at a CSR triangle - it’s not always necessarily the right thing to do in terms of only doing what’s legal; you also have to do what’s right ethically.
There is another way of thinking about being socially responsible when it comes to decision-making. Are you willing to see all of your decisions potentially splashed across the front page of a newspaper the next day? Are you comfortable with everyone understanding and knowing what kind of decisions you make? Those are but little examples of how one decision-making role can actually gauge and determine how responsibly you act.
Why is it crucial? For the very reason that the world would be a much better place if we all listened to our consciences; if decisions were always made while thinking about being socially responsible and further, adhering to the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Q. What is the greatest example of CSR that you have witnessed in Georgia?
A. People often expect the answer to this question to be some form of charity. Unfortunately, we tend to think of CSR purely in the philanthropic sense. That’s not how CSR works. In general, I see companies and organizations doing things that go beyond their bottom line but they are not doing it with the right motive. I don’t like it when companies do something for vulnerable or disadvantaged groups and members of society, solely to take credit for doing that very thing. I don’t believe you should get involved in those kinds of situations just to get credit for highlighting somebody’s plight. It’s something I watch for very closely.
I’ll give you some specific examples, however, of proper CSR we have done at GAU. We’ve done things like providing free legal services to women who’ve been subjected to domestic violence and wounded soldiers returning from military assignments; those kinds of things are absolutely fantastic. In 2018 we had 3 projects: the 1st was a book titled 33 Emotions, launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair where Georgia was guest of honour based on its language and alphabet. The book consisted of short stories from modern fiction writers with short stories beginning with each of the 33 letters of the Georgian alphabet. For us it brought students closer to the cultural aspects of Georgia. The 2nd thing we did was a calendar whereby students interviewed 12 returning military personnel, both men and women, who had been left disabled from their time in the military. You can’t believe how moving it was for the students to hear first-hand the tales of heroism and courage from these returning warriors.
The 3rd thing we did related to our new medical school with almost 200 Indian students. It’s a big cultural difference and change for our existing staff and lecturers, As such, we carried out diversity trainings to give them a better understanding of the differences between Indian and Georgian cultures. You can see the variety of CSR activities that are not merely acts of charity.
Q. What is the greatest example of CSR that you can think of globally?
A. There are lots of companies and examples. My mind immediately goes to Bill Gates and Microsoft and some of their initiatives. He is an example of someone who is responsible for their own fortune, and gives back. It’s a kind of philanthropy, the kind of great work that he is doing both in education and medicine the world over. There are lots of small and great examples really.
Q. In your opinion, what percentage of Georgian business is socially responsible in general?
A. My answer would inevitably be taken from the standpoint of the American Chamber of Commerce here in Georgia because we have a higher percentage of companies who are socially responsible as members, due to the fact that they are naturally aligned with the ideals and concepts we have in the western model. There is quite a big percentage doing very socially responsible activities, probably at least 70% of the total membership.
Q. Where do you see Georgia in terms of CSR in 10 years’ time? Provided that we keep the same tempo, attitude and rate of investment, how will its CSR compare to that in highly developed countries?
A. It doesn’t depend as much on particular companies as on the clients and customers. I believe that if clients and customers continue to push for socially-responsible decisions and actions from companies, and if we as citizens keep up the pressure, expecting more and more from our government, the Government will continue to advance and move forward. The same goes for customers and clients. If companies understand that it is important to customers and clients that, as well as providing good service, their decision-making is socially-responsible, then they will continue to progress.
Q. What are your thoughts on the CSR Forum that The FINANCIAL is holding, what would you change about it?
A. The FINANCIAL is really trying to overcome the limited definition of CSR that is thought of as the norm, and bring awareness to the broader concept. We are seeing more emphasis even from the Government on environmental issues for example. I have a problem sometimes when we have situations such as we do in Georgia - where some people have difficulty putting food on the table. And it’s very hard for them to understand why we prioritize environmental factors over their immediate needs. I therefore try to use the term ‘quality of life’ and for that to be understood as a very socially-responsible phrase because quality of life for you and for future generations is something so important and easier to articulate.
Q. What do you think is the greatest challenge that Georgian businesses are facing when it comes to CSR?
A. Most of the companies and organizations in Georgia operate with very lean staff. As such, their employees are consumed with their daily operations. So having the time and the ideas to think outside their narrow operational aspect is a problem.
Q. What is AmCham’s role in improving business ties between Georgia and the U.S., and how has is it improved CSR?
A. To bring in and ensure that Western values and Western ways of doing business are established here and shared with the members and the Georgian business community at large. We have other things like interacting with the Embassy and the Georgian Government, but it’s definitely the Western and American system of business. And imparting the value of being socially responsible.
Q. What is AmCham’s role in improving the country’s economic state?
A. We have a responsibility to our members to make sure the business environment is healthy and thriving and making sure that government regulations and laws do ensure a healthy business environment. That’s how we make sure that the economy grows in those ways. We also share our concepts and ideas through a CSR Committee and also share common practices in social responsibility and responsible conduct.