Enacting Corporate Social Responsibility with Rachel Mason Nunn

Liv Arkell speaks with social development specialist and host of the Good Will Hunters podcast Rachel Mason Nunn ahead of The Failure of CSR In A Warming World event this Wednesday.

Image by Max Bender, via Unsplash

Liv: You’ve been working in development for a while now. What got you into the area and how have you seen it shift since you started working?

Rachel: My first role in development was with the World Bank. I remember learning about the World Bank at university, and a few months later, following a serendipitous series of events, I ended up working for the World Bank in Sydney as an intern. I had always known I wanted to work in international aid but didn’t know what form that would take. Originally I thought I’d be an aid-worker, on the frontline of crises providing emergency support. I came to realise that this isn’t where my strength lies… nor was it where I was most needed! The sector is changing so much, and charities working in international development face more challenges than ever before – changes in the way they are funded, a trust-deficit from the general public, highly complex problems overseas, and a push for more participatory approaches and less external intervention. It’s a tricky time, and I’m committed to helping the sector find it’s way in this new era. Old-school approaches to development don’t cut it any more – we have to be very innovative, very introspective and aware of all the bias that we bring with us, and focused on amplifying the voices that we haven’t historically amplified.

Good Will Hunters sees you engage with individuals who are involved in development in a whole range of ways. Has the podcast shown you any trends in what does and doesn’t work when people try to pursue change? What is the best way to make change sustainable and enduring?

I don’t think the trajectory to creating change is ever a straight one! It is often a case of two steps forward, one step back — or a side-step, as I prefer to put it! We need to be making mistakes and rewriting our norms in development. It’s hard not to oversimplify this, but the most effective change tends to occur when you have a combination of the following; leaders who lean into vulnerability and empathy, a culture that seeks to listen more than it speaks, and the ability to surrender to the way a process unfolds, rather than holding on to preconceived plans. Development interventions always work best when you minimise the ego and maximise the collaboration, vulnerability and transparency. Enduring change isn’t always a good thing – sometimes we need things to keep transitioning and evolving. Just roll with it! Be committed to gathering as much information as you can, and to forming really solid partnerships – high performing individuals are great, but high performing teams create change.

Both your podcast and work focus on the intersection between sustainable action and business. What is the biggest challenge you face when discussing sustainability with corporate groups?

I had a realisation a few months back that I’m a much bigger advocate of change from within than change from outside. I like advocacy and lobbying and protest marches but I like actually getting inside an organisation and understanding their ‘why’ better. No one is inherently bad, business included. Businesses are profit motivated because that’s how they stay in business, and increasingly they’re realising that failing to account for social and environmental impacts not only gives them a bad reputation, but it always impacts on their profit-making abilities. Corporate Australia understands it has social and environmental responsibilities, both to shareholders and to stakeholders. I try to focus on accepting them where they are – whether it be at the very start of their sustainability journey, or a few years in. Once a business understands the ‘why’ then everything else falls into place quite naturally. So, to quote so many speakers before me, start with why. Why is becoming more sustainable in our best interests? Why do we want to make this change? You can’t force people or businesses to change until they’re ready, and readiness usually emerges once someone knows their ‘why’.  

Who do you believe are the key players in making sustainable action with impact? 

We are! Everyone. We are all so connected and every action we take has an impact on others. We can’t control all of these impacts but we can be mindful and honest with ourselves, and seek to make gradual change. 

Can individuals bring about genuine change in a corporate environment? Or is a more systemic shift needed?

Absolutely! Corporations consist of individuals. This is such an important realisation for young professionals to have. There is no ‘them’ – we are them. We are the ones that make the systemic shifts, by working at it every single day. Corporations aren’t big homogenous entities, they are places where a lot of individuals gather together and seek to make change. Of course, we operate in a larger regulatory environment which can limit the change individuals can make – sometimes significant policy changes are needed. But again, who changes policy? Individuals! 

In your ideal world, what would the future of sustainability look like for business?

We shouldn’t need to say ‘sustainability’ because it should be so inherent to business, as inherent as profit. No one asks a business what their profit policy is, but everyone asks what their sustainability policy is. A successful future is where we know businesses have strong, evidence-based approaches to sustainability because it would be unheard of if they didn’t.

Rachel Mason Nunn is a Social Development Specialist and the host of the Good Will Hunters podcast. She has worked in development in Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, and throughout the Pacific islands, including as a consultant for the World Bank, as well as work in the not-for-profit sector. Rachel has a Masters in Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development from Australian National University, and holds an undergraduate degree in Political, Economic and Social Sciences from University of Sydney. She is passionate about reinventing the role of business and the private sector in international development, by reconceptualising notions of progress, profit, and purpose.

Liv Arkell is a fourth Year Arts/Law student with a strong passion for the environment. Liv aims to use her degree to become an environmental lawyer, and hopes to reduce environmental damage by making solutions to it approachable and fun. She is president of the University’s Waste Fighters Society.

The Failure of CSR in a Warming World

Despite decades of international negotiation, the promotion of sustainable market ‘solutions’ and voluntary corporate commitments to emissions mitigation, there is no tangible sign of the much needed decarbonisation of our global economy. In this panel discussion, a group of academic experts and business practitioners will discuss how businesses might change their approach to environmental and social sustainability in a warming world and what is needed to build genuine business leadership which better engages with citizens, communities and governments at this critical time.

The panel discussion will be held on campus on Wednesday October 16 from 6 – 7.30 pm.

More information and registration available here.