“Our Members Are Serious About Corporate Social Responsibility”


“Our Members Are Serious About Corporate Social Responsibility”

A conversation about Corporate Social Responsibility with Lilit Gevorgyan, the former Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Armenia.

Interview : Nazareth Seferian
Photo : Amcham Armenia  



Nazareth: Lilit, in 2017, AmCham launched the Responsible Business Network (RBN) as a new platform among its members, and I was happy to be part of this effort from Day One. Let’s talk a bit about CSR in general, the results of this platform in particular, followed by AmCham’s and your personal vision for our country.

Lilith: Yes, and let me take us back further in history. AmCham has been operational in Armenia for more than 20 years, and we gradually evolved into an organization that also welcomes non-profits among its members. It has thus naturally become a space where some of the best for-profit and non-profit entities in Armenia connect with each other, which is an essential aspect of CSR. And this was our initial idea with the RBN – matching businesses with potential partners around CSR initiatives, but now it is probably time to rethink that philosophy.



Nazareth: Let’s start with the definition of CSR as you see it or from AmCham’s point of view. What is it?

Lilith: Well, each company has its own definition of CSR, but there is a general consensus that it is about giving back to society. Unfortunately, in our reality, it has developed strong associations with PR, and sometimes, the initiatives that are communicated as CSR have little long-term, sustainable impact. Perhaps it is a misplaced intention or a focus on PR alone. I have seen projects that are communicated strongly but need more substance in terms of impact. In our vision, CSR must be based on a foundation of long-term thinking, of sustainable impact. And I am sure that our members are serious about Corporate Social Responsibility.

Nazareth: In your opinion, why should a business be serious about CSR? Many companies ask me this when I tell them it’s not about PR. They say, ‘So why should we do this? What’s in it for us?’

Lilit: I’d like to give an example from a personal angle. What if a real egoist wants to be in an environment that is doing very well, where there are no problems, but no one is seeking his support? From this perspective, there is definitely an aspect of self-interest in CSR, too. It is not purely about altruism. 

Nazareth: I like this example with egoism, and it fits well with what I often tell businesses – CSR is about finding mutually beneficial solutions to shared problems. Many of the issues that exist in the country negatively impact businesses, like the quality of education provided by schools and universities. Being a part of the solutions to these problems is definitely in the domain of CSR.

Lilit: Shared solutions, shared values… We often use a beautiful phrase in Armenian, don’t we? Tsavd tanem. Let me take away your pain. Let me share your pain.
Education, indeed! Earlier in my career, I worked a lot with IT companies. At some point, they realized that the talent shortage in their sector resulted from problems in education. But they could not wait for the Government or other stakeholders to find a solution. They had to act. So, companies set up an award to encourage more schoolchildren studying STEM to consider careers in IT. Companies invested money to redesign the curriculum of specific high school subjects to give schoolchildren a holistic view of choices in IT. It’s not just about programming, after all, but also engineering, microelectronics, telecommunications, and so on. Companies established the relevant departments at the Polytechnic and other universities. And these efforts benefited both: the companies – helping them find a long-term solution to their shortage of human resources – and the whole of society. This is the essence of CSR – shared solutions and sustainable benefits for all.

Nazareth: And it’s great that the Responsible Business Network has helped foster this mindset in the business community in Armenia. But let’s also talk a bit about the challenges. What are some of the lessons learned from this initiative?

Lilit: As I said earlier, one of our initial objectives had been to match our member companies with non-profits delivering impact on the ground. These partnerships would grow into good CSR initiatives in our vision. And they did. In the beginning, we had successful matching events. But we see now that companies could be more enthusiastic about events in the existing format, where non-profits pitch to them. They don’t want to make any pre-commitments. But, on the other hand, we see many beautiful initiatives between our member companies and non-profits “behind the scenes”, meaning they need a new format with AmCham.

Nazareth: Yes, I’ve been in their shoes. When I was responsible for CSR at a telecommunications corporation in Armenia, non-profits would come with “ready-made” projects and ask only for financial support. But companies are more interested in co-creation, in my opinion. How can the project be designed to allow, for example, employee volunteering as a component? Can the business contribute in other ways – for example, by designing a new product or service that better serves a vulnerable group? These are not questions that usually go through the minds of non-profit professionals. However, a healthy dialogue between the for-profit and non-profit sectors can lead to developing what you described earlier – longer-term projects with sustainable impact rather than focusing on PR.

Lilit: When it comes to commercial activities, many companies worldwide have realized that they are not just selling a product or service, they’re selling an experience. It’s time for non-profits to learn this, too – their partnerships with companies should be about the experience, not just the transaction of a financial donation in exchange for good press. Historically, civil society organizations, or nonprofits, act as a bridge between society and other stakeholders, like the Government or the private sector. But these non-profits need to keep learning and evolving, they cannot stick to old methods when seeking corporate support. 

Nazareth: When it comes to the global AmCham community, do AmChams in other countries have any good examples in this area that could be recreated here?

Lilit: Yes, we are part of AmChams in Europe and constantly learn from each other. For example, in the framework of improving the quality of education in the country, AmCham Slovenia had a wonderful project on increasing the appreciation of teachers in society, including the public and private sectors. Our European colleagues have also told us that businesses appreciate the recognition, and a national awards scheme could be an interesting way of promoting a more sustainable impact by the private sector in Armenia.



Nazareth: What about the role of the Government? AmCham has an excellent track record of acting as a bridge between the public sector and the country’s business community. What would your message be to policymakers regarding promoting CSR in the country? Many businesses often ask for tax cuts or other privileges in exchange for more community investment or impact. Is this the way to go?

Lilit: I have worked in the public sector and focused on fiscal policy in the past. I know that focusing only on tax cuts and privileges all the time is not the best solution. After all, when you work in management in a company, you have several tools to encourage desirable behavior among your employees. Bonuses and other financial incentives are one way to go, but many options exist. The same is true for the Government. It has many tools for encouraging responsible business among Armenian companies, financial incentives are only one of many choices.
It is challenging to draw a clear line and say, ‘This is the problem of the public sector, and this should be taken care of by the businesses.’ It’s all shared. For this, the Government should set clear “rules of the game,” learning from best practices but with minimal interference. There is a broad scope for public-private partnerships, which can take initiatives to a whole new level of scalability and sustainability.
I want to mention an important initiative here, which has been one of our priorities at AmCham for several years and will continue to be one of our main focuses. It is the promotion of Extended Producer Responsibility, one of the commitments our country has signed up as part of the European Union-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA). It’s all about promoting responsible production and consumption – companies must bear responsibility for the waste associated with their products or services, ideally designing them with a circular economy approach in mind. We’re working closely with both the public and private sectors, involving a broad range of stakeholders, to ensure that this is introduced in a way that will have a tangible impact on our country.

Nazareth: Thank you, Lilit. What would be your final message today to anyone reading this article?

Lilit: CSR is simply a question of your footprint or impact on your community. We should encourage companies to consider their footprint and publish reports on these topics. As a platform where the best businesses and organizations in the country meet in an atmosphere of Western values and principles, AmCham is a space where new cultures and attitudes can take shape on many topics, including responsibility and sustainability.

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