Exploring Gaps in converting Impactful Community Development Projects on ground

Disclaimer: The views of this opinion piece is solely from the author and not necessarily the view of the company.

A recent site visit to our client’s operations had our team exploring the perceptions and dynamics of company vs community. As I noted all the activities our client listed, including building temples, a few randomly placed street lamps – I wondered if these activities had any impact or remotely enough? Shouldn’t the company want to spend money on sanitation or education instead?  I shared my concerns with a colleague. The hour and something discussion had a significant learning curve in my understanding of CSR activities and the potential to use it as a stakeholder engagement tool. The course of the discussion are shared below:

What makes a CSR Activity impactful?

I perceived that there are two ingredients that made any activity impactful – how many or how frequently? ( the quantity) and/or how effectively can it resolve the root of the problem? (the quality). How many livelihoods have been transformed or affected on a daily bases? Does it solve the root of the problem? If it did both, the activity is deemed highly impactful – Enrolling 10,000 girls to school in a heavily patriarchal/ stigmatised community is undoubtedly more impactful than a one off donation of 600 laptops in an electricity deficient, low literacy rate village! Admittedly this is a simplistic view, leaning heavily on the success of its project selection and management. Companies cannot regard CSR projects in isolation – It’s success is dependent on trust and mutual understanding. This encompasses 1. Listening to the community and establishing a common ‘need’ 2. Gain Trust by empathising responses/ concerns raised and reassure the community – not just say, the influential village heads.

Should impactful CSR activities be led by companies or the community?

To dig a little deeper, we had role played what it would be like to view activities from a communities perspective vs companies.  As a community, I may have asked for a street lamps, which I perceive to be an asset for my community as it affects daily chores, but if the company offers me a primary education school instead – would I (read as a community representative for this para) value it more? Perhaps not. It could be seen as – asked me something, offered me another. So would I, really value and use an arguably more impactful investment such as a primary school? Would I care if it doesn’t run? – Maybe not. I would be more inclined to appreciate what was requested and received – and therefore would consider notifying someone if the street lamps didn’t work. This right here is why the effort carried out by a company, gets lost during implementation. For a programme to be effective  or ‘impactful’, organisations are dependent on the villages to see value in it. Value is recognized when demand is met. So, it could be said that a business case for projects could influence the community’s understanding of the requirement, which would gain value and invariably see impact.

Are community-led CSR projects an investment to build trust?

I can see why it might be crucial to carry out initiatives, communities have voiced to gain mutual trust and understanding. Ideally it would make sense to present facts and negotiate an impactful project upfront, but the sad reality is that this might not always pan out. Under this circumstance, building temples and randomly placed street lamps are perhaps a step to ascertain trust. It needs to be embedded in negotiations to carry out an community led project in turn for the opportunity to present an impactful project. One way or another, companies must graduate to a more robust and impactful CSR agenda.

Keerti Krishnan-Murphy
Sustainability Officer
Dairygold Co-Operative Society Limited
Clonmel Road, Mitchelstown, Co.Cork, P67 DD36, Ireland

Sustainability Reports a Missed Communication Opportunity

Does your heart sink at the thought of reading yet another sustainability report?

Over the last three years I’ve been documenting the ways companies are communicating sustainability online and using social media in particular. Time and time again, even those companies that demonstrate real panache in their sustainability communications fail to make the best use of the research, data and information that goes into their sustainability report. Often, as a result, a company’s most interesting sustainability work is left buried in these dull but worthy publications that no one really reads.

The reason for what we might call “a failure to communicate” often can be attributed to a fundamental disconnect between corporate communications and marketing. Sustainability reports have become an important calling card that major companies now use to demonstrate their sustainability commitments. They are a benchmark for shareholders, NGOs, climate and environmental rating agencies and certain niche areas of the media. For the rest of us, however, they are a snoozeathon, which explains why most companies bury them deep in the corporate website as a PDF.

Yet by ignoring the information that goes into sustainability reporting, communicators are failing to make best use of all the time and effort that has gone into compiling this information. What’s more they are missing the real, authentic stories that online audiences really want to know.

Sustainability reports shouldn’t be viewed as a dull but necessary part of sustainability compliance. Instead these reports should be seen as the raw material for dynamic sustainability storytelling that reaches online communities far broader than the traditional target audience quartet of investor, employee, NGO and media stakeholders.

After all, consumers and communities are demanding more information about corporate sustainability and responsibility than ever before, and they are sharing their opinions and judgments about companies online. All too often the information that would impress these consumers lies buried in the sustainability report but isn’t mined to help demonstrate a company’s true sustainability credentials.

Some companies are taking a lead in reimagining how sustainability reporting can be communicated online. The Co-operative 2012 Sustainability Report is one good example. It exemplifies a new trend in video storytelling to illustrate sustainability reports. Short and succinct (just over three minutes in length) the report offers a digestible and interesting overview of The Co-operative’s sustainability data, achievements and goals.

Novo Nordisk offers a different take on video storytelling. The Danish healthcare giant uses hand-drawn animation to clearly explain its commitment to fighting diabetes – a major theme of the company’s 2012 Report. Using this animation technique Novo Nordisk made what could be a “dull but worthy” topic come alive and grabbed the interest of online audiences.

No consumer is going to read an entire sustainability report from cover to cover. Come to think of it neither is any member of the media or even most investors or employees for that matter. That’s why creating a short, visually appealing version of the report is a smart idea. BT does just this with its Better Futures report, creating a highlights scrolling microsite that includes key messages and core data.

Despite a growing backlash over the usefulness of hashtags, this original Twitter taxonomy can still be an integral way to cut through social media noise and help organise conversation around sustainability reports. This year SAP created a dedicated Twitter hashtag #sapintegrated to help shepherd conversation around its 2013  integrated corporate and sustainability report. It’s a social media innovation likely to embraced by many other brands.


Matthew Yeomans, Sustainable Brands