Corporate social responsibility: how active is the Australian tourism industry?

The way tourism companies in the Blue Mountains engage in corporate social responsibility changes depending on whether they are owner-managed or not. Flickr/nosha

“Corporate social responsibility” (CSR) isn’t just a term used by blue chip corporations to give them a more caring image. It’s a principle being adopted by thousands of small and medium-sized tourism firms in Australia who want to give something back to the community.

It’s founded on the concept of voluntarily making the organisation a better place to deal with - whether working for the organisation or using its services. It could be providing a flexible work atmosphere, supporting education, or making donations of time or money to charities. Given that 99% of companies in Australia have under 200 employees, and they account for over 70% of all jobs here, these small organisations could make a big difference.

To understand small business engagement in CSR I undertook an examination of small tourism businesses in the Blue Mountains. I found that owner-managers and non owner-managers engage in various forms of CSR that reflect three distinct types of engagement – reactive, active, and proactive.

Owner-managers

My study of small tourism firms in the Blue Mountains examined the approaches these firms have been taking to become more socially responsible, and whether the business is managed by its owners or not makes a significant difference to CSR engagement.

Owner-managed tourism firms tend to be reactive – practising CSR when approached to do so. For example, donating money when a charity calls the business, or allowing staff time off to collect a sick child from school. The owners see their business as a personal extension of themselves, continuing the practices from their personal lives in their business.

One owner manager told me: “As an individual I feel [the] necessity to have some sort of social responsibility… so it’s as an individual, not as a business that I’m doing it”.

For the owner-manager, motivation is personal but they are time-poor, so these businesses respond to requests as they come, and are not as likely to actively make regular donations to worthy causes, or seek out opportunities to practise CSR.

Non owner-managers

In contrast, non owner-managed firms tend to take CSR to heart for its perceived business and financial benefits. One manager stated, “there’s a reason to be socially responsible, which is to attract more people to be financially viable”.

In these companies, employees are commonly answerable to the owner or the board, and must justify the expenditure of any business funds for CSR by proving a cost-benefit. In this way, engaging in CSR becomes simply another business activity rather than a personal action.

Managers are also more likely to believe their business’s reputation will benefit from associating with socially responsible causes. Therefore they proactively look for opportunities to engage in CSR, whether it’s arranging an annual fundraiser or nominating an employee for an award.

One size does not fit all

So one size does not fit all when it comes to offering guidelines to a company on how to become more socially responsible. On one hand we have owner-managed tourism businesses whose engagement in CSR stems from their personal motivations, yet they lack time, so tend to engage in CSR re-actively.

And on the other hand we have non owner-managed tourism businesses which engage in CSR for the perceived business benefits, and engage in a more proactive manner in order to realise these benefits.

In addition to this, several owner-managed and non owner-managed tourism businesses engage in CSR actively, which means they engage in CSR in an organised and continual manner. This may include making a regular donation to a charity or organising an annual fundraiser.

While offering guidelines and programs to businesses to assist with CSR may be perceived as best practice, councils and trade organisations need to be wary. This is because those who have built up, and managed their own business are acting responsibly for personal reasons, not to adhere to a set of rules or for marketing purposes and they see these programs more as a burden than a benefit. For this group increasing awareness about what constitutes CSR is a better way to increase engagement.

As many of Australia’s tourist companies shift towards promoting their community credentials, it is important that the characteristics of different types of tourism businesses be considered so that appropriate encouragement and support can be given.

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