Ursula Manvatkar’s accidental foray into corporate social responsibility (CSR) began during the peak of summer in 2008.
The marketing manager, who was between jobs recuperating from surgery, noticed many expats in her neighbourhood of Jebel Ali Village had lost their jobs in the recession and fled the country – leaving pets behind to fend for themselves.
“I started a campaign to rescue these cats, dogs, ducks, snakes and turtles that people had dumped”, says Ms Manvatkar, 32, from India, who has lived in Dubai her entire life. “There were dogs still waiting for their owners to come back, it was heartbreaking.”
Unable to legitimately accept donations without a special permit, Ms Manvatkar enlisted the help of a corporate sponsor.
“I spoke to a firefighting equipment company called Naffco, who sponsored most of our expenses. In return, we told the media we spoke to about them.”
Two years later, as marketing manager for Freshly Frozen Foods, Ms Manvatkar kick-started another CSR initiative.
“We didn’t have a marketing budget so we donated food to labour camps. There was no looking back after that, I really felt the calling.”
Then in 2013, she took the plunge and set up her own company, Medulla – one of the first regional businesses to focus on CSR. “The first activity on our licence is for CSR initiatives”, says Ms Manvatkar. “We also offer marketing consultancy, market research, PR, event management, IT — basically everything which I need to put campaigns together.”
Medulla’s CSR initiatives include Care 2 Share, which distributes food and other items across labour camps every Friday.
Ms Manvatkar explains that any individual can approach to volunteer for free on one of their initiatives.
“But if you’re a corporate and want to do a handout, for example, that’s when there’s a service fee involved,” she adds. “We give the company whatever publicity they need to get back from sponsoring a cause and they do their ROI [return on investment] based on that – how many clicks we got on our social media, and what media coverage and ratings we received. That is a commercial agreement.”
Ms Manvatkar says a CSR budget of Dh50,000 to Dh100,000 a year is more than enough to make an impact — “versus a boarding on the Sheikh Zayed Road, which may costs you millions”, she adds.
Although the impact of CSR is hard to measure, Thomas Edelmann, who last year founded the CSR platform Road Safety UAE, says CSR is more prevalent in the UAE now than ever before. “More companies understand what CSR is all about and then try to leverage it to earn themselves the ‘good citizen’ and ‘good employer’ labels”, he says. “We help them to achieve this with exposure on our platform and by consulting them in developing meaningful activities for our CSR cause.”
Mr Edelmann says increasing numbers of organisations, such as the Arab CSR Network and the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, are arranging conferences, seminars and awards to spread the notion of CSR in the region. Road Safety UAE itself won a 2015 Arabia Corporate Social Responsibility Award for its commitment to cutting the number of accidents on the nation’s roads.
Mr Edelmann also finds that corporations tend to look for meaningful causes that are linked closely to their own industries. “The financial sector is working on financial inclusion projects or financial education projects, and the food industry focuses on obesity and lifestyle themes,” he says, adding that since his platform addresses such an overarching topic of society, RoadSafetyUAE enjoys support from many industries.
Explaining the process, he says: “We invite CSR partners on to our platform and then leverage the theme of road safety in touch-points marketing initiatives, like consumer or staff promotions, staff training, speeches at conferences and exhibitions, press releases and research projects. The involvement of our partners is scalable. Some focus more on external audiences, raising their CSR profile toward the broader public and their customers, and some focus more internally on their staff via workshops.”
Mike Tolan, is the chief executive of the business solutions company World Class International Services Group. He advises companies that although it’s nice to donate cash – “often, in the life cycle of young start-ups, it’s not feasible. Many companies are, however, deploying winning strategies to bolster their own contribution in kind, either through barter or by volunteering time to an existing CSR project initiated by another organisation”, he says.
He suggests that CSR works best when companies form committees where employees and CSR officers are part of the steering process, with examples of possible activities including repainting a home for the elderly, hosting a car wash to donate money to a needy school, or creating a used book drive to donate to an orphanage.
“The unseen advantage in all this is the magical, intangible yet amazing feeling of giving back to something or someone,” he says, but he also warns: “There is a fine line between being genuinely involved in a CSR project and exploiting it so that you purely get a part of cash rewards.”