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How to Write a Great Corporate Social Responsibility Report

3p Contributor | Friday July 26th, 2013 | 4 Comments

5 tips CSR Report WritingBy Michael Gutman, Founder of REACH The Future

Over the last month I have been comparing and contrasting corporate social responsibility reports from six major San Francisco Bay Area companies across different sectors.  Gap, eBay, Wells Fargo, SunPower, Chevron & Salesforce all make an effort to show their efforts to invest in environmental and community stewardship.  Now is my chance to share the insights and tips I’ve learned through this review process, including what a CSR report should include & exclude.

But first… this question must be asked.

Why develop a corporate social responsibility report in the first place?

I offer two main reasons.

  • To benchmark a company’s current operations and impact on society and the environment in order to know how and where they can improve.
  • To show stakeholders that a company is investing in community and environmental stewardship.

With these motives in mind here are 5 things a good CSR report will do

1. Focus more on future goals, less on past successes:  The whole point of a CSR report should be to understand and showcase how business was conducted in the past so a company can plot a course to do better in the future.  While sharing the success of your CSR strategy is good, don’t make the mistake of dwelling on the past CSR successes and forget to focus on future goals. A CSR report without clear goals for the next year is like a boat with no compass.  If people are going to jump on board with your company, they will want to see where the ship is headed.

In addition, be absolutely clear about your future goals and how you plan to achieve them.  This helps you and your stakeholders measure the success of that plan.

Example of some measurable goals:

  • 30 percent reduction in green house gas emissions in the next 10 years by putting solar on our buildings.
  • Converting all office paper to 100% recycled paper within the next year by developing an environmentally preferable purchasing policy.

Set goals that are cautiously optimistic and still obtainable. This way, year after year your company can report progress and avoid setting goals that are weak.

2. Discuss the elephant in the room:  Every business, regardless of how irresponsible they are now, can move towards operating more sustainability.  But how should that company talk about their efforts when people know that the manufacturing process of their products leads to environmental devastation?  The question will always come up for any business that consumes more natural resources and produces more waste than it recovers.  It is important for a company to address these issues first.

This can be accomplished with a simple statement like:

“We are providing a valuable product or service that helps people with XYZ and while we acknowledge that the creation and the consumption of our product or service does have consequences on the environment and communities, we are looking at behaviors and technologies we can adopt and invest in to reduce our negative impact.”

If you don’t feel comfortable acknowledging the negative impact of your business, then I would take another look at your motives for writing a CSR report.

3. Avoid a PR nightmare: Focus on sustainable business practices and responsible workplace conditions as opposed to philanthropy.  Corporate social responsibility is more about how a company makes a profit than what it does with its profit.  Don’t get me wrong. Philanthropy is definitely part of the CSR story and my business, REACH The Future, or organizations like Universal Giving would not be in business if it weren’t. However, if a company focuses its CSR efforts on the donations it made and ignores its toxic chemical pollution and child labor practices, the media will have a field day.

4. Gain 3rd party credibility: Nothing will help build integrity, credibility and transparency to a company’s CSR efforts like 3rd party reporting or certifications.  Many industries have unique reporting tools designed for a specific industry.  Here are some tools that work across industries.

-Global Reporting Initiative

-Greenhouse Gas Protocol

-Carbon Disclosure Project

5. Share stats and stories: Stories do a great job of showing the types of relationships CSR efforts have with community and the environment.  However, they don’t give a company and its stakeholders baseline metrics to test against and evaluate the success of future CSR efforts.  A CSR report that is heavy on stories and light on stats comes across as more of a PR initiative than a sincere effort to invest in measurable results.  It is good to have both, but go heavier on the stats than the stories.

Here is a helpful tool from Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship that will help guide the creation of a CSR report.   How to read a corporate social responsibility report – a user’s guide

Conclusions: Creating a CSR reports takes the effort of many to get all the data, discuss a communications strategy and get the sign off from everyone involved.  In the end it all comes back to why.  Why is any organization creating this report in the first place?  If your intentions are genuine, then people will be OK with your faults and interested in your efforts and strategy to do better.  This position yields a brand that is honest and has integrity. If your efforts are motivated by PR, than your CSR report could open up a can of worms that creates negative press and backfires.

These are just some of my insights and I would love to hear from people who have written CSR reports and/or have been part of the process.  Share a comment or let us know some best practices or strategies you have used when creating this type of a document.

Feel free to continue this conversation with REACH The Future’s Founder, Michael Gutman, by commenting below, or on Twitter & Facebook.

[Image credit: Mennonite Church USA Archives, Flickr]


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  • sethwrose

    “…go heavier on the stats than the stories.”

    Don’t sell stories short. A well told story encourages others to follow suit.

    Unfortunately, some people are blind to stats. For example, some people seem unmoved by our record-setting temperature statistics. Yet for many of us advocating for more sustainable practices, those statistics tell a story.

    Seth Warren Rose

    • http://www.reachthefuture.org/ Mike Gutman

      Agreed Seth,

      Stories are a great way to engage people. However stories are harder to measure and use as a guide for future goals. When creating a great CSR report, stats are used as benchmarking tools and stories communicate what those stats mean in terms of human and environmental impact. However, without stats, stories seam weak.

      • Brian Higgins

        It really depends on your audience. A stat-heavy is great for internal circulation because it documents the baseline (if the first) and progress as measured against that baseline, but an executive summary with a selected story and quality graphics will be much more beneficial to a more general audience. It is just best to figure this out up front before you start the reporting process.

  • Shivam Bansal

    Hey Michael Gutman, Nice post, But i would like to know what is your benchmark for these assumptions. Or these are just your own thought process.