While the next few months are about guessing when will the new guidelines making CSR impact reports mandatory be passed, one must also wonder who will be measuring the ‘impact’ in the first place. While I write down a few principles that social and environmental impact evaluators must follow, here’s sharing with you an abstract from my old piece on ‘who’ should be consolidating all that information that must go in your CSR report in one file and will finally ‘write’ it.
Before I explain the inverted-commas-induced stress on ‘who’ and ‘write’, let me provide pointers on why write a CSR or sustainability report in the first place. Broadly, I underline only four reasons: a) to track, record and present as well as set benchmarks for the organisation’s way of doing business and its influence on society and the environment; b) to let stakeholders know how the organisation is investing towards sustainability and development; and c) to abide by Section 135 of the Companies Act 2013; and d) and to remain in sync with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Here, I list out a few points that will help in identifying the right ‘writer’ within the organisation and help you in avoiding the mistakes that many Indian companies have made in the recent past.
- NOT a public relations firm
The CSR report does act as a PR tool, but it is not that only. The CSR report is a medium to show how business was conducted in the past and that the company is on a path that promises accomplishments. In contrast to a press release or other PR communications, the report is NOT about boasting about past CSR successes merely in words. A report that does not underline clear goals for the next year is like a boat with no compass. Your stakeholders will certainly want to know where and how your company is headed, and they will also want to see your claims backed by measurable metrics and numbers. For instance: the company harvested xyz cusecs of water and targets abc cusecs by 2020, and double of that by 2025. Your PR firm cannot set your goals, cannot predict your organisation’s future with close accuracy, and may end up exaggerating the past numbers – and your CSR programme ends up looking and sounding like a PR gimmick.
- NOT your sales and marketing team
How will a typical marketing professional develop a report wherein he has to admit that the manufacturing process of his company leads to environmental devastation? The report demands a note on efforts (practical ways) being made for making your processes sustainable as well as eco-friendly. This note has to be backed with half-a-dozen other activities that your company does towards environment conservation. For all intents and purposes, a marketing professional with pressures of meeting targets and developing the brand and the business certainly cannot talk about sustainability.
- Moreover, there have been cases wherein marketing and sales teams wrote reports and camouflaged facts. When these facts were unearthed by the stakeholders, the brand was severely hurt. Note that if you cannot acknowledge the negative impact of your business, then you should redefine the motive for writing a CSR report. In fact, in such a case you should not write a report in the first place.
- NOT your NGO partners
Focus on sustainable and responsible business practices does not make you a charitable organisation. A report from a typical non-government organisation may make you sound like one. As far as philanthropy reporting is concerned, NGOs may go ahead and write every ‘cause and effect’ relationship they understand, but sustainable business reporting is not their business.
- NOT freelance content writers
Mostly, if not always, content writers are a jack-of-all-subjects kind of writers who will take years to differentiate between profits and net profits, and will make your report either a complete hardcore news story or a juicy, fiction-like drama—or even come across as typical website content. And if you opt for a typical content agency, all that you will get is a mix of the top 100 sustainability reports of top companies with ‘blank’ spaces (with a note asking you to fill in the spaces with appropriate numbers, percentages, figures or words).
- NOT your HR, accounts, or corporate communications departments
Each department has an objective that is based on the belief that ‘we are the ones who keep the company afloat’. If only one department is given a chance to write a report wherein content from all the departments have to be shared, you may be sure to find a few pages that are extra bright, overwhelmingly appreciating a few initiatives/achievements of one department, and underreporting the same of other departments. You can also expect missing content and back-and-forth of numerous emails, follow-ups and tussles on data sharing, information handling and the way of reporting. The conflict-resolving heads will end up solving cases of missing pictures and wrong surnames and misinterpreted numbers in the company’s CSR report.
Well, the next best person after the CEO (who apparently does not have the time) will be an external resource – an individual with responsibility as well as authority to be able to share anybody’s work station at any time, and is allowed access to all the information from across departments.
This individual should have the talent and ability to sit and dine with the CEO to understand his vision, sip tea with the drivers and cleaners to get a whiff of the employees’ attitudes, connect with beneficiaries (even if they are in the slums) of the company’s CSR activity, and have a great rapport with the company’s communications team.
Of course, s/he should also be a person of ideas who can weave statistics into human-interest stories as well as justify human-interest stories with statistics – all to ensure that the report is about a business that is sustainable or at least is making efforts to be one.