Way back when, good corporate citizenship was straightforward in theory, if not in practice. Time and money went into community projects at one end, while from the other came photos of beaming beneficiaries (or sweaty volunteers) and, if you had the time, a nice anecdote or two to add some humanity to your corporate report.
As in so many ways, life has since become more complicated, and what was previously an art has, thanks to the behemoth that is ESG, become rather more of a science. This is a good thing; the equivalent prominence of “social” alongside environmental and governance brings rigour, consistency, comparability and credibility to our work. It also, happily, positions B4SI at the front of what is a rapidly expanding pack of measurement wannabes. But it is not easy.
Carbon emissions are pretty two-dimensional – the unit is fixed, the methodology agreed and the reporting is already, in some cases, almost to accountancy standards. The S, by contrast, remains subjective. Starting points are often unclear, progress can be hard to attribute, and impact is frequently difficult to measure. On top of that, there’s the question of timing (what if the outcome only materialises in five years?) and, even when you have that covered, those at the receiving end may well be long gone and lost to data for ever.
So why do we bother? Well, now more than ever there is an insatiable appetite for objective reporting of social investment. Inspired by what has been achieved in the E, community colleagues – who have, after all, been at it longer than anyone – are now desperately searching for their moment in the sun. This is the time when we should be presenting spreadsheets and graphs of growing engagement, rising influence and undeniable transformation on behalf of those who need it most. Happy are those with the means to deliver; missed is the opportunity for those without.
The good news is that in B4SI, our community has something longer-established, better-supported and swifter-evolving than any comparable platform. Beyond community investment, we now look at supply chain spend and commercial social investment. More than ever we scrutinise and digitise progress, so that ‘”numbers in” lead to equally unarguable “numbers out”. And, as importantly, we continue to provide the space where those at the frontline can share common challenges and agree on common solutions.
Our profession (as it now is) has a unique opportunity to embed within the S, metrics that prove the force for good that business brings to society. If we are to truly “build back better”, we need a baseline from which the bounce can clearly be evidenced. With business so often criticised for its failings and disinterest, we have only ourselves to blame if we do not properly account for the positives when we have the chance. Are you ready to step up and be counted?
Matt Sparkes, Head of Sustainability at Linklaters LLP