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One of the great joys of being a journalist is our privileged interaction with passionate people from all segments of the society. By the very nature of our work, we have direct access to those who are driving change and forging new paths. Most of it is almost routine. But, once in a while, we meet people who stand out and outshine this mighty company. Dana Haiden is one of those memorable ones. Instantly likable and articulate, Haiden's candor is a rarity among executives at her level and she makes for an engaging conversationalist - confident, honest and knowledgeable, pretty much the holy trifecta when it comes to interviewees.
Surprisingly for someone who is Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at a major multinational like Vodafone, Haiden has kept herself (and her work) relatively under the radar. But that was before she was named among the 100 Most Talented CSR Leaders by the World CSR Congress earlier this year. She was recognised for her role in actively promoting strategic CSR among her colleagues in Qatar. "We have worked closely with the congress over the last four years to run workshops here and figure out the best way to get the message across to all practitioners," she says.
One such effort is the CSR Majlis, an informal quarterly meeting of national CSR managers, structured around different themes, providing a much-needed push in the right direction for CSR education in Qatar. Because Haiden believes, and it is hard to disagree, that the understanding of CSR is in the very initial stages in the Middle East, with Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Oman being the notable exceptions.
While CSR as a management discipline has come into the mainstream globally, it is still very much under-construction and often misunderstood. To me, it is a most fascinating subject, a precarious balancing act between public image, profits and positive change in the community. Many times even multi-billion dollar companies can, and do, get it wrong."Yes, there is such a thing as bad CSR," Haiden says. "When you use it purely as a marketing and PR tool, for example. "Because it's not about how much you spend but where and how you spend it, equal parts strategically and creatively. It's instinctual, it's organic and the very best CSR is often indistinguishable from the company's core operations.
Haiden's tryst with the subject happened during her time as a business major in Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar. "My interest in CSR started in my sophomore year through a class that I took with Professor George White. A big segment of the class was about organisations with purpose and this intrigued me. After that class, I took a lot of courses with Professor White because that is his area of expertise. I fell in love with the concept and I began to involve myself on campus with community development activities as part of the CMU-Q student government (Student Majlis)," she remembers. "Professor White invested a lot of time in me as a person, developing my interest in social entrepreneurship and purpose-based organisations. Every semester I would ask him if we offered a class on those topics. At one point I had taken all of the classes available and he felt bad because he knew I wanted to learn more so he became my mentor. Outside of class, he would send me articles and books related to the topic and we would discuss them at length." However, when she graduated in 2009 she found herself drawn to a different path, one that serendipitously would lead her back home.
"My first career role revolved around public relations and events at Qatargas . When I started work (within two weeks of graduating), my intention was to grow into a marketing role in the oil and gas sector," she says. She was drawn to the glamorous idea of selling LNG to the world and being part of an industry in which her father has spent his career. " Qatargas told me I was too young to do it then and they'd develop me. But within six months, I was fighting to create a CSR role for myself," she smiles. "In the PR department I was dealing with a lot of the community engagement activities, charitable donation requests, etc. I knew that I wanted to get more directly involved. There wasn't a dedicated CSR department at Qatargas at that time and I was given that additional portfolio."
But nothing she learned prepared her for CSR in the real world. "I understood the basic principles of how a company should impact the society while doing business but still had to learn how to apply it in a real world environment." Despite that, Haiden really believed, in a way only possible by a fresh-faced idealist, that she could change the way how CSR was done in Qatargas . Over six months, she built their CSR and social investment policy from scratch, which governed the resources being spent on donations and sponsorships and the categories and causes they focused on. "We never used to look at how sometimes a major portion of the donations we'd give for a charity event would go towards the operating costs and very little for the cause itself. We couldn't control these details before. It was really exciting work and that's when I really got hooked into the space."
Though initially her focus was on charity and philanthropy, she soon found herself wanting to explore the sustainability element of CSR. "Social investment, along with green initiatives, is a big puller but it's a lazy way for companies to engage in CSR. Don't give someone a fish, teach them to fish. Otherwise there will continue to be segments that are dependent on charity over a long time. That's my problem with philanthropy," she says. Back in Qatargas , Haiden turned her gaze inwards, looking into the various departments and their operations of which she had gotten to know over time, and trying to fix them or make them more efficient by instituting a system of sustainability reporting. "Initially when I pitched the idea there was a lot of resistance. People were worried this would 'expose' their existing policies regarding HR or environment. But that was not the idea. It was about identifying and filling the gaps towards becoming a better corporate citizen. I am happy to see that today Qatargasare the biggest supporters of sustainability reporting."
More than four years ago and almost immediately after publishing their first report, Haiden left to take up her current role in Vodafone Qatar, a profile that came with a broader scope and bigger challenges. "I wanted to interact with the community, run campaigns and see changes happen. Vodafone was a good place for that as CSR is a strong brand activity for them," she says. In certain sectors, CSR can be a natural extension of business. At one extreme is the education sector, for example. "Qatar Foundation is an example. Their business nature itself is pure CSR, though it is not seen that way." While telecom, with its direct link to the community, provides a lot of interesting CSR avenues to discover, it would also take "a lot of business case arguments to support whatever we plan to do. The more commercial the company is the harder it gets to prove the case of CSR," she says. So in some ways CSR at Vodafone is simpler when compared to that at Qatargas - when you consider the technical aspects of environmental policy or human rights issue, for example. But the role was also a lot more public, the market was fast-moving and the work demanded more than a dash of inventiveness in trying to reconcile the business side with the duties of a good corporate citizen.
That CSR sweet spot
Anyone can throw money at a problem but how can you solve society's problem in a way that makes commercial sense? It's a contentious topic, even among her peers globally. Should CSR be viewed through an ROI-tinted lens? Does seeking profit from these activities defeat its purpose? There is no ambiguity in Haiden's CSR philosophy. "What we have to understand is that the CSR function is not about making the company look good. It's not about slapping your logo everywhere so that people love your brand. Brand building is important but to remain relevant you need to contribute to what matters more - profit. Why is that a bad thing?" she asks hotly. "I am serving my own objectives while also meeting the needs of those of the people I am trying to help out. And for me to argue a case with my executive team, I have to show that this is profitable. It can't be sustainable otherwise. It's a hot topic of course, and is a point of debate in all CSR conferences I go to. "
In the end it all comes down to implementation. "It's possible for every company in Qatar to run a successful and profitable CSR strategy. But it's not easy, which is why companies shy away from it or take the usual route. In Qatar, whole sectors sometimes lack the understanding of how they can do a lot more by doing the right thing." Haiden says that after she joined Vodafone, she realised the power of using what you know and your area of expertise to do good. This is closely linked to her earlier point. "That's one of the things I want to see change in Qatar. Companies have to try and find that sweet spot in which to invest their CSR efforts and money. If your CSR strategy involves your core business, ROI won't be a problem at all. That's my message to every CSR practitioner in the country," she says
At Vodafone, Haiden heads several of their current CSR initiatives. The World of Difference programme funds social entrepreneurs and implements local charitable projects. The second is their online child safety programme targeted at parents, helping them connect with their kids and bridge their disparate understanding of the tech world while also protecting them. And the third initiative focuses on making technology accessible to people with disabilities. In association with Mada, they conduct workshops to help people take full advantage of the disability-friendly features on their phones and also help those who come into their stores in choosing an optimal model according to their impairment, with discounts on handsets and plans.
These initiatives are not overtly publicised. Haiden says it's tricky talking to the public about your CSR work. There is a fine line. Cross it and your company starts looking bad. "At Vodafone we try to be loud when talking about CSR itself (like the CSR Majlis) because things have to change in this area. But our tone is different when talking about our other initiatives, which serve as much as a purpose for us than they do for the society. It would seem disingenuous. An example is our child safety programme. Of course there is a need for this conversation and we are happy to lead it but we also want to be the provider of choice when parents are buying their kids their first mobile phone. In the long-term we want to build that trust."