The Ron Brown Awards grew out of President Clinton's wish to establish an award that would honor corporate citizenship, explains Richard E. Cavanagh (MBA '70), president of The Conference Board, a business research and membership organization of some 2,900 companies in 63 nations that helped establish and administer the award. "The President hoped that such an award would elevate and honor issues of leadership in citizenship as the Baldrige awards have done for leadership in quality," Cavanagh says.
Conference Board president Richard Cavanagh (MBA '70): elevating and honoring coporate leadership.
photograph courtesy Confernce Board
Clinton wanted the award to pay tribute to the memory of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, an advocate for corporate responsibility, who, with a number of business executives, died in a 1996 plane crash in Croatia. The President discussed his idea with several business leaders, who then approached The Conference Board because they knew of its work on corporate responsibility and human resources matters. The business leaders established a board that included McKinsey managing partner Rajat K. Gupta (MBA '73), whose firm provided a pro bono study of the issue. "When they realized the extent of our experience in such matters," Cavanagh says, "they asked us to manage the award."
Companies submitting projects for the award must be engaged in activities that significantly promote employee and/or community development and meet specific criteria. For example, a company's commitment to corporate citizenship must be visible at all levels of the firm, be part of its business strategy, and include the involvement of top management. Programs have to be innovative and effective and have a measurable impact on the people they are designed to serve.
"Nearly five hundred nominations, from more than one hundred companies, poured in, greatly exceeding our expectations," says Cavanagh. "They covered a wide range of projects, from workplace safety and training initiatives, to family-friendly programs, to various partnerships with cities and states." After reviewing the submissions, a panel of judges selected IBM and Levi Strauss as the two winning companies: three other firms were singled out for special mention.
HBS professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter was one of the eight judges, as was James R. Houghton (MBA '52), the retired board chairman of Corning Inc. "We felt that the IBM and Levi Strauss programs really fit the criteria, especially in terms of the companies' long-term commitment to the programs and the way they reflected the companies' values as part of everything they do," Kanter notes. "The resources and number of people involved, including the CEOs, were outstanding, as were the ways in which the companies had taken the programs beyond ordinary practice to create innovative new models."
Ron Brown Award honorees Lou Gerstner (left) and Bob Haas look on while President Clinton salutes them and their companies at February's White House ceremony.
photograph by Dotti Stone
HBS Forum: Business Leadership in the Social Sector