By 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.
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:
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.
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.
Image credit: Carl Heyerdahl/Unsplash