Endeavor Egypt in a CSR Conversation with Dr. Laila Iskandar

Dr. Laila Iskandar leading a conversation on CSR with Endeavor Egypt

Author(s): Mohamed Rahmy, Managing Director 

On Sunday May 15th, the eighth installment of Endeavor Egypt’s Breakfast Series* was dedicated to discussing the important – yet often misunderstood- subject of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

Attended by Endeavor Entrepreneurs and Endeavor Mentors, this interactive discussion was led by Dr. Laila Iskandar, Egypt’s former Minister of Urban Renewal & Informal Settlement, former Minister of Environment, 2006 recipient of the “Social Entrepreneur of the Year” award by WEF Schwab Foundation, and a pioneer of the subject.

Over the course of two hours, and in an intimate setting, Dr. Iskandar drew on her 25+ years of community development experience and work with government agencies, the private sector, and NGOs to address questions raised, and engage with attendees, on a variety of topics ranging from CSR opportunities in today’s Egypt, the role of SMEs in activating their CSR potential, challenges encountered, capacity building, and sharing of successful CSR examples in Egypt to learn and be inspired from.

By the end of the discussion, a number of engagement ideas were identified – taking their cue from the importance of ‘give-back’ and ‘re-investment’ in the Endeavor model, and laying the ground for potential collaboration ideas within the Endeavor Egypt network.

What follows are the highlights from the discussion.

Intention, intention, intention

Setting the right ‘intention’ is a key driver of an effective CSR strategy, according to Dr. Iskandar who also stressed the need to  make the distinction between CSR and community work that is motivated by the marketing or PR needs of a company.

The impact of a CSR program, and the value added to its target community, is a key success metric. This doesn’t just depend on who leads the CSR program in a company, but –more importantly- the design of the program -including identifying a focused target group- and how it is implemented.

Engaging the community

Taking informal settlements’ (slums) development as an example for a potential area of CSR engagement, Dr. Iskandar highlighted the importance of 1) target community members’ engagement, and 2) identifying the appropriate ‘entry point’ to the community for the success of a CSR program.

“When engaging (a community), your approach should focus on the ‘opportunity’ you are offering, allowing the community to see the value (to them or to their businesses) if they let you in,” Dr. Iskandar explained.

Joining forces with NGOs is something a company may need to also consider if is unfamiliar with a community.

The absence of community engagement, or selecting the wrong entry approach, has the potential to negatively impact the program and its underlying efforts- as previous experience has showed when CSR programs follow a top-down patronizing tone with the target population.

This is by no means limited to slums alone. Similar thinking needs to be considered if a company’s CSR strategy will tackle other issue-areas, too, such as nutrition, health, or access to technology. The relevance to and buy-in by the community underscores the desired outcome.

Can SMEs afford to have an effective CSR program?

The concern over scale was one echoed by several attendees; SMEs may not have the resources, capacity or influence that large multinationals often have to run extensive CSR programs. “It’s your brains and not your money,” was Dr. Iskandar’s feedback giving more priority and emphasis to the thinking process that goes into the “clever design of a CSR program” than to the question of resource availability- at least in the beginning.

SMEs do not need to start-off by launching nation-wide programs, nor do they have to hire a fully-fledged CSR team from day one. Instead, companies should start with small initiatives that they can run and manage internally and whose progress they can track and impact assess. With the right intention in place, scale will follow organically if the initiative is well thought-out and carefully designed from the beginning.

There is wisdom in collaboration

Dr. Iskandar encouraged moving away from acting alone and instead joining forces and acting collaboratively with other companies, civil society and government actors. By embracing collective action and leveraging resources and expertise, these organizations  can bring us even closer to the desired impact.  The need for collaboration is especially urgent when target communities are hard to penetrate by the company alone, or when expert knowledge of the issue-area is needed.

Companies however, need to know that developing a partnership is no simple-task, Dr. Iskandar warned, adding that it takes time and effort to come up with the ‘right’ collaboration framework that will satisfy all parties concerned. To demonstrate the latter, Dr. Iskandar referenced a recycling CSR initiative whose parties continue to be entangled in disputes over details, taking away from the effectiveness and desired impact of the program.

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‘Do Well and Do Good’ is sector-agnostic 

Aligning the CSR initiative with the company’s business will bring meaningful results; there is always an opportunity to ‘Do Well and Do Good’, as long as there is an “intelligent” CSR design in place.

Dr. Iskandar shared a number of ideas and examples from the automotive, food & beverage and real estate sectors around how companies can (and are) innovatively develop CSR programs that are in sync with their business goals and operations.

Companies in the ICT space, in particular, were singled out by Dr. Iskandar.

As a result of mobile penetration in excess of 100% in Egypt, coupled with rising internet penetration and literacy rates –  especially among youth – Dr. Iskandar is already seeing emerging opportunities to leverage the versatility and accessibility of technology to address key social issues like health or education across Egypt. “We can use cell phones intelligently to educate people, say, about their nutrition,” Dr. Iskandar explained.

CSR and Government

Working in alignment with the government is something the conversation encouraged. While acknowledging challenges sometimes associated with navigating bureaucracy, a company at the beginning of launching a CSR program needs -at least- to begin by identifying the relevant government bodies, ministries or agencies that may have an impact, or may support, their CSR program. From there, companies can gradually start a dialogue and build relationship with these agencies. This will prove to be helpful as the CSR program grows and scales.

For some of the companies attending the talk, Dr. Iskandar identified Egypt’s Consumer Protection Agency (CPA) as a good start point to begin this dialogue with.

Tax incentives to companies was something the discussion also touched on, with charitable spending being tax deductible but only up to 10% of a company’s taxable income.

Endeavor Egypt and CSR

Endeavor has developed a proven model that has, since establishment back in 1997, led our work, impact and pursuit of leading the High Impact Entrepreneurship movement, and giving-back and re-investment are integral pieces of this model. The actions of Endeavor Entrepreneurs and the various ways through which they re-invest in their ecosystem and communities is what expands the impact of the Endeavor network, in Egypt and globally.

With that in mind, the conversation led by Dr. Iskandar was very relevant to our needs as Endeavor Egypt network; helping us gain understanding, valuable insights that could potentially align our efforts where community engagement programs are concerned.

Looking Ahead…

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We were very happy to see that, by the end of the discussion, fresh thinking around adopting thoughtful CSR strategies were triggered, and ideas for possible collaboration among our wider Endeavor network were inspired; leveraging what each one of us can and is offering- independently.  

The Endeavor Egypt Team is taking its cue from this discussion as a preliminary step towards using the knowledge shared to exploring our collective potential to work together.

Just as Egypt is fertile ground for necessity-driven innovation and entrepreneurship, the same can be said about CSR programs. The socio-economic challenges facing Egypt’s most fragile communities are so diverse that any CSR initiative will generate impact- so long as it’s rooted in the right intention, well thought-out and designed, takes the right approach and factors in follow-up and progress assessment.

With alignment of our intentions and efforts, I am hopeful that we can advance a meaningful contribution to our shared community, and society writ large.

* Endeavor Egypt’s Breakfast Series are expert-led conversations that tackle key themes or issue-areas that are of interest to the Endeavor network- hosted by Endeavor Egypt and open exclusively to Endeavor Entrepreneurs and Mentors. 

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