How Leaders Can Accelerate Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

By now most companies understand how vital it is to share what they’re are doing in order to become better corporate citizens. But as industry leaders are quickly realizing, it’s about so much more than a report.

CSR and sustainability literacy

There’s a deficit in many boardrooms and C-suites around what all of this means. Before your organization can embark on any sort of program, it’s important to agree on definitions and educate your team before you begin. Many companies are forming ad hoc committees and teams that bring in advisors and millennials to jump start their efforts, understand issues, and build acumen.

Talking with stakeholders, not at them

Are you engaging in a dialogue (meaning two-way communication) with your stakeholders and/or customers? Just allowing your customers a way to provide feedback is no longer enough. The real value is ongoing dialogue through customer portals, social media, and special digital events or campaigns that engage customers and stakeholders around a certain topic or event.

Social media

Yes, you need to be using it. It can be time intensive, but it’s one of the best ways to communicate with and influence millennials. Still, you don’t want your sustainability communication efforts via social media to live in a silo—they should be coordinated with an overall communications strategy that’s supported and bolstered by c-suite and top management. The big mistake you can make is not to align your sustainability message with your brand message.

Context and relatability

You report that your global water footprint is 300B gallons of water and 11,500 of your employees are involved in community events and foundation activities. OK, great. But the problem is, I can’t wrap my head around how much 300B gallons is. Provide some context and equivalencies to help me relate it to something I can grasp. Perhaps show me that this is the amount of water used annually by all residents in Lexington, KY. Likewise, 11,500 employees involved in community service sounds great. But out of how many? If you have 250,000 employees, that’s a little over 4%. Additionally, if we also learn that the previous year was 2%, it shows you’re improving and that’s important.

More engagement, less report

Many organizations seem to think engagement means adding graphics and stories to the report, but this isn’t always the best approach. Why not go the other way—align the report to an index like GRI and keep your report a report. Simple. Boring, even. Then, showcase the great stories, achievements, news, photography, infographics, and design in a digital experience that can be updated at least quarterly with new stories, updates on targets, etc. The people you want to reach likely aren’t reading your “report,” so don’t put all your cage-free eggs in that basket. Make your online CSR property something that draws people in, inspires, educates and promotes action.

The combined report

When it comes to the report, you may not be ready for a fully integrated CSR report. But, one way some companies are shrinking their reports is through combining their annual (10-k) reports with their CSR report. The trend is being driven from shareholders and investor relations departments who are increasingly wanting to report and align all company performance in one location. In addition to strategic alignment, investors are concerned about risk. A company that is not addressing its impact on the triple bottom line is opening itself up to just that.

We’re all in this together

I can’t tell you how many CSR reports I‘ve read where afterwards I couldn’t tell you anything the company is really doing, aside from counting carbon or patting itself on the back for the many pounds of paper it has recycled. Please share the programs you’ve adopted and report on successes and best practices. We’re all on this planet together, so share. Also, what do you want your audience to do with your message or report? Ideally, you want to promote action and involvement. Your customers, employees and stakeholders, if engaged, are loyal and willing to heed your call. So, what are you waiting for?

Originally published on LinkedIn on 4/1/2015

CSR Literacy. We Can't Solve the Problem if We Don't Know What We're Talking About.

Corporations around the world are talking about sustainability and corporate citizenship. But what do these terms mean? Why do so many individuals and companies have different definitions of what constitutes a good corporate citizen or a sustainable organization?

Consistent definitions matter.

If you ask a group of people for their definition of “sustainability,” for example, you are bound to get many different definitions. Some will answer something close to John Elkington’s definition: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” while others will throw out the “triple bottom line—people, profit, planet” or that it’s just “being a good corporate citizen.” Still others equate sustainability to being “green” and assert it’s mainly about environmental concerns like recycling and changing light bulbs. As corporations, even when we label our sustainability efforts, we’re all over the map with names like “Global Corporate Citizenship,” “Sustainable Business & Innovation,” “Social Innovation” or just plain old “CSR.”

There is no correct answer, but coming up with more consistent definitions is vital for engagement and imperative to demystifying CSR for the rest of the world.

The challenge is often bigger than determining how to tell the story.

Often I’ve found that the biggest challenge isn’t figuring out which stories to feature or how to visualize some complex data. The biggest challenge is trying to come to a consensus internally on the definition of single word or a concept, like “sustainability.” As you begin to engage stakeholders across your organization, you may learn that different departments have different definitions of words or concepts. Moreover, you may find that emotions and feelings regarding these words or concepts varies greatly among employees.

Based on this experience, I’ve concluded that many companies and organizations have or have had a similar challenge. When tackling corporate social responsibility in a company, there are lots of challenges: employee engagement, data collection and measurement, setting targets, regulations, resource constraints, supply chain complexities, etc. So, it’s no wonder why companies often skip the very simple first step of vocabulary and move right to jumping into the deep end of the pool and getting to work. But, trust me, you are gonna want to take that first step.

It starts at the top.

At the most recent Globe 2014 Conference last year, I attended a session titled Green Is the New Black: The Growing Role of the C-Suite in Sustainability. In this session, the consensus was clear: there is a sustainability literacy problem across companies, but most noticeably in the boardroom.

Our friends at AHA! know this firsthand and created a great site called the “unglossary.” As a talented group of storytellers and writers, they have faced the same challenge we have—advising clients and addressing the language of sustainability.

In addition to words that have many definitions, or wonky technical words, we have the alphabet soup of acronyms to deal with. Have you read the latest BASF CSR PDF? Spent any time checking out the latest from CDP, SASB, or IIRC? Make sure your report is aligned to the principles and/or index of GRI, DJSI, GRESB, FTSE4GOOD, CSI, KLD GSI, UNGC. Do we spend any time educating the audience that we profess to be trying to reach about terms or acronyms? Or, do we expect them to “GTS” and figure it out for themselves? Don’t we want to share our point of view on what these terms and acronyms mean to us?

Educate your team.

Companies need to take the advice sung by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music: “Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” You need to start at the very beginning by creating a glossary or lexicon for your company, employees, and board. Some of the words and acronyms will be easier than others. But, for those more complicated or polarizing terms like “sustainability,” “human capital,” “labor,” “zero waste,” or “green” it’s essential that you spend some time discussing what these terms mean to you. Then develop a plan to incorporate these words and concepts an employee education and development program to help ensure understanding and build consensus across teams and throughout the organization regarding your point of view and philosophy.

Involve Millenials, and bring it home.

This approach should establish a solid foundation to strengthen buy-in from the C-suite and board (they should be involved in this process, BTW) and improve employee engagement. Another way to help close the literacy gap in the boardroom is to involve Millennials.

Too many boardrooms are missing the perspective of Millennials who speak the language of sustainability and corporate social responsibility. If putting a young whippersnapper on your board isn’t in the cards, at the very least you should create an ad-hoc advisory board or committee that includes Millennials to provide this important voice. Then you need to listen, and act.

In order to make your sustainability and citizenship efforts more powerful, educating your workforce and rallying behind a common language is vital. Once you do this, I predict your employees will be more engaged in your CSR vision and will energetically carry the torch. And, I’d argue if they are carrying the torch, they may carry it home and bring sustainability into their personal lives. How about that for being a change agent?

Originally published on LinkedIn on 5/14/2015