Social Change: Means vs Ends

By Carolyn Chen



“Analytics helping humanity” – that’s the motto of the Data for Good movement, an initiative of which SAS Institute is a part. Since its inception in 1976, this privately held multinational company headquartered in Cary, NC, has been providing analytics software to customers in 149 countries worldwide and across a diverse number of industries. Many of the Fortune 500 companies are SAS customers. As a private software and data analytics company, it may at first seem unusual to see SAS on the same partner list as other non-profit, corporate accountability and responsibility- focused organizations. However, in a world where social responsibility and business have become increasingly intertwined, SAS is an example of a company that seeks to maximize positive social impact alongside its mission of “delivering proven solutions that drive innovation and improve performance.”

SAS’s approach to social change is “to do well by doing good.” The company is a member of the UN Global Compact, a multi-stakeholder initiative involving businesses, governments and NGOs, in which business pledge to align their operations with human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption principles. In terms of workplace culture and employee relations, SAS has been consistently ranked as one of the best places to work since its inception in 1976. It emphasizes work-life balance for employees by provides many benefits, including an on-site health center, daycare, unlimited sick days and more. The results of these efforts are not only reflected in the free breakfast on Friday, but also the fact that SAS has seen continuous revenue growth every year since its founding.

For SAS, positive change begins from within. Corporate social responsibility and human rights is not so much a public relations embellishment as it as a continuous practice that helps mitigate risks for the company alongside “doing good.” CSR areas include the SAS Code of Ethics, supply chain management, environmental initiatives, labor practices, and education and philanthropy. The Ethics and Compliance department within SAS, where I work, focuses on issues that directly link to human rights, such as anti-corruption, privacy, and export control. This department provides training materials to educate all SAS employees on how to maintain an ethical culture and is integral in shaping corporate conduct.

As an intern within this department, most of my work so far has centered around how SAS can improve upon or provide more metrics to demonstrate compliance with various CSR standards. One project I am focusing on is the final draft of a Supplier Code of Conduct, which includes ethical, environmental and labor standards that SAS will expect its suppliers to comply with. SAS can deny suppliers who are found in violation of these standards. By selecting its business partners, SAS can use its budget to support businesses that demonstrate a clean human rights record. Futhermore, the hardware and other materials SAS purchases is then used to help the business in its own operations. The technology that SAS employees develop has, in turn, gone on to increase efficiency, inform business decisions, and help clients in the corporate, non-profit, and governmental spheres. For example, SAS data analytics recently has been used by researchers to help uncover trends in human trafficking data from State Department reports. For SAS, social change is not a radical, high-level idea but rather something steady and incremental across every step of its operations.

Unlike a third-party NGO, which may raise capital to achieve its goal of directly addressing corporate accountability, SAS generates its own capital and its primary goal is still to make a profit and continue to create new software. But through its internal accountability functions, which span across multiple divisions, SAS also strives to be a conscientious corporate citizen. Although some readers may view this statement with skepticism, from the perspective of private sector, NGOs promoting corporate respect for human rights and corporations should not and do not necessarily exist on opposite ends of the spectrum. Companies can be and are proactive in enacting social change and ensuring compliance with human rights and ethics, rather than only NGOs being tasked with ensuring that corporations uphold these standards. For instance, since starting this internship, I have been surprised to find that businesses have also begun to hold each other accountable. One way is through Supplier Questionnaires, RFIs (Request for Information) and RFPs (Request for Proposals) that are sent out to potential or existing suppliers. Since SAS has both suppliers and is a supplier of analytics technology, it receives and sends out these types of forms. From the examples I have seen, these forms include direct questions about ethical and human rights standards of the company and allow for the right to audit responses to ensure compliance.

I believe that SAS’s approach to social change and its CSR policies points to a larger question of what really counts as “social change.” There are common organizational buzzwords associated with social change – “non-profit”, “NGO”, “social entrepreneurship”, “benefit corporation.” But can a business only claim to be “doing good” if profit is not a primary concern? Can a corporation only claim to be “doing good” if it qualifies for B corp certification? Must words like “social” and “good” be in the mission statement? Does the idea of social change being a means instead of amends, of being a result rather than the sole mission, make it somehow less “legitimate”? In the coming weeks, I plan to explore the complicated role that corporations play in the landscape of human rights and social good.