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Ann Cramer, Pioneer of Corporate Citizenship

Over her 33-year career at IBM, former Director of Corporate Citizenship Ann Cramer helped establish the principles of Corporate Social Responsibility, then worked tirelessly to raise the bar for what companies could, and should, do for the communities and stakeholders they serve.

No one who knows her will be surprised that she sees retirement as a great chance to work even harder for her favorite causes—education, philanthropy, and CSR—or that she “can’t imagine not having a call or a meeting or someplace to be every hour of the day.” Karen Beavor recently got her take on the field Cramer helped start, and her encore career plans in the sector.

On the evolution of Corporate Social Responsibility:

CSR has evolved from strands of single focus areas—ethics, governance, environmental sustainability, diversity, global awareness, being able to deliver on your promise to suppliers, partners, clients—and of course traditional philanthropy, volunteerism, and now skill-based volunteerism, to a full integrated array. Some companies excelled in some of those areas, or none, or all, but what we’ve seen now is that CSR should be the integral, critical component of any company, in its DNA, to allow it to fully engage on all cylinders.

To me, the CSR revolution has evolved from practicing charitable giving or episodic, discrete actions like volunteering; it is now what I like to call an “essential integrated citizenship and leadership function.” In other words, it’s not, “Oh yeah, we’ll put up a recycling bin. “Rather, it’s about how we as citizens are socially responsible in every community in which we have the privilege of serving.

The nonprofit sector doesn’t have the capacity to fill every gap, so we have to learn how to work together in that overlap area, as well as in our unique spaces. And it’s that commitment to being socially responsible that’s going to be the critical success factor for companies, so I see it as a very important place to be.

On nonprofits as responsibility role models:

How we govern, how we treat people, how we hire, how we fire, how we work, how we treat the environment—the nonprofit sector can’t just give that to Coca-Cola to do. I remember talking to the executive director at a nonprofit, and he would always say, “I don’t need a salary.” And I’d say, “No, you don’t need a salary, but you can’t deliver on your mission if you don’t have people who are quality, and to get quality people you have to pay them reasonably.”

The nonprofit sector doesn’t have the capacity to fill every gap, so we have to learn how to work together in that overlap area, as well as in our unique spaces.

CSR is how we deliver on our promise and our values, every day, to our clients and our community. So using the example of paying for talent: nonprofits want to be valued as an employment sector, right? To do that, in terms of social responsibility, you must value employees. If nonprofits are to be fully valued as a sector, then we can’t expect them not to be engaged, involved, and giving in the full array that comprises social responsibility today.

On developing leaders for CSR:

This is one of the things that CROA, the Corporate Responsibility Officer Association, is really trying to define: what is the profession? How do you prepare for it? Is there any sort of certification or professional development that is required to make you more effective in that profession?

I morphed into my job from a community/societal position, but the company I happened to work for used that as the point of intersection for the full array of what CSR is today. At IBM, CSR meetings often included, for example, our chief environmentalist, the head of HR, the philanthropy-contribution side, employee volunteers—it included everything. And we, Corporate Citizenship, were the coordinator for the whole.

At many companies, that integrator role can be where their strength is. We had the strength in brand and reputation, so we were the ones who could see the whole, and CSR therefore began to be the point of integration.

On developing CSR where you work:

CSR comes from understanding your company’s strengths. For example, at IBM a core strength is problem-solving, so our Corporate Service Corps works similar to the Peace Corps: we send out teams of IBMers to countries or communities to [tackle] critical issues defined by that community. These are people from different countries, they don’t know each other, but they all have skills and talents that fit the need. It’s not that we know that particular [issue], but we know how to be strategic and solve problems and create a roadmap for success. So we are leveraging what we do best and bringing that to bear on the big problems of the day. It’s good for our people, it’s good for our communities, and it’s good for our business. That integration is what it is all about.

We are leveraging what we do best and bringing that to bear on the big problems of the day. It’s good for our people, it’s good for our communities, and it’s good for our business. That integration is what it’s all about.

For those who are not in a CSR role, or who do not have that role at the company, but want to make a difference, the most important thing you can do is your job; that is number one. Job one is job one! But the “and” is, you find ways in your own company to be involved in cross-divisional, cross-functional teams that are working in whatever area you care about. As a career strategy, you’ll be visible to a broader range of executives—which is a career advantage—but you will also learn and hopefully have some influence on how the company works. I have never met a company yet that doesn’t need another volunteer for their United Way campaign, or to be involved on their diversity councils.

Individually, you can also get involved with a nonprofit that aligns with your passion. Of course, that is not only about what you learn, but what you’re exposed to: what kind of leadership works, how people work effectively in teams, how you get things done.

On her most memorable moments at and after IBM:

I still cherish those first months when I went to Newark, N.J., to the IBM school—all of us went to school to learn the IBM culture, processes, everything—and meeting such diverse, fabulous people. The experience we had with the Olympics in Atlanta was also amazing and unforgettable. And for IBM to have a commitment to education, which was a passion of mine: again, it’s about the alignment and the integration. The blessing of who I am, and what the company is, and what we valued together, and the ability to make that important—important to the company, and important to the world—I think is pretty fabulous.

And now I get to continue the work we’re doing in Atlanta related to education, through the Metro Chamber and the Atlanta Regional Commission, really moving us toward achievement, and using my voice to ensure that people understand education is a critical component to a successful community. And then both of those continue my involvement with foundations, and the foundation community, as well as with the business community, in how it can best steward resources to improve society. So I’m excited to be a new board member at the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, and I’m excited about being a senior consultant with Coxe Curry to provide insights for their clients, and for other donors who are perhaps just a little different, and to use my expertise to help groups that need it.

However and wherever I can be helpful, available, and supportive, that’s what I’m really excited about. The vision is still the same, it’s just integrating new opportunities as I continue to walk the journey.

Lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Listen to the podcast, A Conversation with Ann Cramer.

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