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Janek Seevaratnam

Corporate Advisor
Charities Aid Foundation

T: +44 (0) 3000 123 264
E: corporate@cafonline.org

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CSR REPORTING: START WITH THE SHOP WINDOW, NOT THE WAREHOUSE

Still think a 70 page report will engage people in CSR and sustainability?

I subscribe to the ReportAlert newsletter, which notifies me when companies publish CSR and sustainability reports. What I find useful about ReportAlert is the summary that it includes with the link to the full report. Scrolling through the last five emails I’ve received, I see:

  • Corporate Responsibility Report – 78 pages
  • Sustainability report – 222 pages
  • Integrated online report – dynamic webpage
  • Global Sustainability report – 111 pages
  • Sustainability Report – 144 pages

I wonder what you make of this – how long is your report? How much time and effort does it take to create? And ultimately, do you think it’s worth it?

DATA, DATA, EVERYWHERE

I’m clearly not neutral. I am all too aware of the huge range of CSR and sustainability themes that a company is obligated to report on, and how much rigour needs to underpin this to be both compliant and transparent. But I also know that, as fascinating as I find these topics (it is my job after all), you’ll have my attention for about 30 pages. I’m increasingly finding myself saturated by data. There’s more and more information out there and it’s getting harder to make sense of.

If this is how I feel as a consultant in this field, how do people on the outside engage with 70 page reports? Because these issues aren’t just for people who work in this area – surely the SDGs have shown us that we’re all stakeholders and we all need to pull together. The problem is that it’s not clear which issues people should engage with and this can lead to feeling too overwhelmed to engage at all.

Imagine going furniture shopping in IKEA, but you don’t start your shopping journey at the front of store, passing through engaging displays themed by rooms. Instead, you start off in the warehouse and make your purchasing decisions by looking at everything they have in boxes on the shelves. That’s what’s happening in reporting today, with many of us wondering why more people aren’t snapping up some of the great packages that have been so carefully and expertly crafted for them to engage with.

WHO WANTS TO KNOW WHAT?

Reporting has become a Herculean task for many CSR and sustainability professionals. More time is spent wondering how everything will get done than asking why we actually report, and who the report’s intended readership is. It might seem a bit basic but often we forget to ask ourselves: “Who are the stakeholders here? And how important are they?”

The below scenarios show how your messaging might change depending on the importance of the stakeholder group:

1. Priority stakeholder: General public

  • Why this might be: the company is experiencing low levels of public trust; or the company is trying to improve brand equity among non-customers
  • What you need to show them: at your company’s core is the commitment to behave ethically and sustainably, delivering benefits for a wide range of stakeholders and society in general.

2. Priority stakeholder: Employees

  • Why this might be: the company wants to improve levels of fulfilment for current and prospective employees
  • What you need to show them: your company lives its values, making it easy for employees to participate in the things they really care about and actually caring about these things.

3. Priority stakeholder: Investors

  • Why this might be: active company shareholders want to see that resource is spent effectively and that operations generate maximum shareholder value
  • What you need to show them: spend on CSR and sustainability generates a return on investment for the business, as well as delivering other quantifiable benefits (e.g., improved talent attraction and retention).

Or, do stakeholders hold similar levels of importance in your report? Of course there are exceptions, but I think it would be a safe bet to say that the content of most reports doesn’t a) match the breadth of the stakeholder group or b) reflect this with content and tone.

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HOW TO TELL A COMPELLING IMPACT STORY

Start off by thinking about what you’re trying to evidence and what you’re currently measuring to do so. For example, by attempting to demonstrate how you’re aligning to SDG 6 on Clean Water and Sanitation you measure your water consumption (baselined) and implementation rates of water stewardship projects.

Once you have an idea of what evidence you have to tell your story, use this to populate an impact framework. This involves mapping out the causal links between your inputs (i.e., your activity), the outputs of your activity, and the outcomes or changes associated to this. This will reveal where you have data gaps that prevent you telling a compelling story. Usually, this is the outcome – or the ‘so what?’ or your activity. To use the above example of Goal 6, you’re doing lots of work to reduce your water consumption – but is this pushing more sustainable behaviour in the business? If it is, this is a much more engaging narrative than showing year-on-year water efficiencies. Plug your data gaps and transform your story-telling.

Having the right data is half of the battle – the other half is using it effectively. Think of it as having a huge spreadsheet with all of your data. Giving this spreadsheet to someone and expecting them to derive meaning from it isn’t going to work. With a spreadsheet you’d use a pivot table to help people make sense of a sea of figures, cutting the data and telling your stakeholders the story they want to hear. This should apply to your reporting, too. Perversely, doing all this work and putting it all into one report for all is careless – it’s like running a great race and falling at the last hurdle.

Finally, you know what information you need to tell your story, and you know what stories your stakeholders want to hear. Think about how you tell these stories – what are the channels that bring them to life and drive engagement for your respective cohorts? Does it make more sense to try and convince the general public of your great community work through a report, or through a social media campaign? I really enjoyed Heineken’s “Let’s Get Frank” video which set out to amplify the reach of their sustainability strategy.

SIMPLICITY

We all know that reporting encompasses non-optional regulatory, standards-based, and operational requirements. However, the way we communicate our CSR and sustainability efforts needs to be a lot simpler. Businesses can catalyse behaviour change but to do so we all need to think about how we connect with different audiences and make these issues chime with them. The key to that is simplicity – give people a clear message that helps them make sense of the myriad things going on around them.

Bob Marley is one of my heroes – not a in a cliché way, I hope, but because of how his ideas and messages reached people all over the world and took them over in a deeply personal way. I’ll leave the last word on simplicity of communication to the man who communicates it so beautifully simply:

“Me is a common sense man. That mean when me explain things, me explain it in a very simple way; that mean if I explain it to a baby, the baby will understand it too, you know.”

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