You’ve seen it: During the last few years, corporate responsibility and sustainability have transitioned out of the silos and into the mainstream. Shared-value is the new reality, and collaboration between even the biggest competitors is increasingly prevalent. Corporate social responsibility (or CSR) is becoming systemic and vital for businesses in all industries and sectors, and even small and mid-sized companies are searching for ways to embed social good within their work.
For what do we account for such a change? Increased awareness of companies’ ability to help solve rising global challenges—reduced natural resources, soaring populations, climate change, increased digital divide—has certainly played a role. Additionally, social engagement has become the norm, and college graduates, yearning for more meaningful careers ahead, are looking for companies that are committed to making a difference.
We do know that what is measured matters, and businesses of all sizes are setting up goals with which to track their progress. Sustainability metrics are becoming more sophisticated, and Fortune 500 companies are increasingly measuring and communicating impact, giving them the ability to review how CSR efforts benefit their community and the bottom line.
Yet, I’ve seen many small businesses and startups struggle to figure out how exactly to measure the impact of their CSR programs. With limited resources, or without a dedicated CSR team, measuring the success of sustainability efforts can be very much a work in progress.
It doesn’t have to be difficult, though. No matter what size your business or team, these tips will help you improve the success of your CSR reporting, so you can show the impact you’re creating—and ultimately create more of it.
1. Focus on Outcomes
The number of hours served, dollars contributed, and employees engaged are important to understand a company’s level of commitment to a cause. To understand the value of those investments, however, it’s essential to examine the outcomes of your CSR projects—how a project changed the lives of community stakeholders, volunteers, and beneficiaries and helped create a better planet.
Whatever types of investments you’re making, think about what constitutes a successful outcome of your work and how to measure that outcome. For example, if your employees are volunteering at a homeless shelter, focus on the number of meals served rather than hours donated. If you’re switching to LED lighting, report on how much energy you’re saving rather than the number of lights you’re replacing.
2. Listen to Your Stakeholders
Through conversation, small focus groups, or even social media polling, you can learn what’s important to your stakeholders—your employees, community members, suppliers, customers, and nonprofit partners. By taking the time to understand their motivations, goals, and needs, the programs you develop can be crafted to best serve those interests and generate the greatest value for all participants. And, you can be smarter about selecting the metrics, data, and stories by choosing to report on what your stakeholders value most.
3. Learn From Others
One of the best ways to improve your impact measurement is by learning from others. Review the CSR reports of companies like Timberland, UPS, and Starbucks, which have used measurement to improve the impact of their programs. Start perusing publications and event websites that focus on promoting knowledge and best practices between CSR leaders, like Triple Pundit, CSRwire, 3BL Media, Guardian Sustainable Business, FastCoExist, and #CSRchat (a Twitter chat that yours truly hosts bi-weekly). It’s one of the best ways to refresh your process and see what you may be missing.
If you can’t attend major conferences such as BSR’s annual event, Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College, Sustainable Brands, Net Impact, or the CECP Summit, review the events online. Many now offer live streaming of content, which can be extremely helpful.
4. Don’t Undervalue Stories
So often, companies can fall into the trap of thinking impact only gets communicated through numbers—percentages, hours, dollars, increases, decreases, and so on. But sometimes impact can’t be quantified—and that’s okay.
Stories and qualitative observations are just as important as data when it comes to communicating your impact. The way a worker’s entire life transforms when he is paid a fair wage is incredibly powerful—and it’s something that can best be communicated through his personal story. Your audiences want to hear these types of stories, and those who are personally affected want to share. Look to brands like Patagonia, Chipotle, Warby Parker, and TOMS for examples of excellent storytellers.
5. Measure, Refine, Tweak, Measure Again
The programs with the most impact on their communities, their participants, and their businesses don’t look at measurement as a one-time endeavor—it’s an integral part of their programs. In short, determine what works best for your company and your stakeholders, so you can do more of it. Then, find out what doesn’t work, so that you can intervene, tweak, and continuously improve going forward.