RoundPeg recently conducted a survey with our partners at Oliver Russell of over 250 organizations made up of B Corps, Public Benefit Corporations, and mission-driven organizations. We did it because we were looking to see how many of them produce impact reports, and what they need help with. I took a close look at 12 reports and learned that all of these companies struggled with the same challenges of how to communicate their impact. No wonder then that “communicating your brand story” emerged as the #1 challenge on the survey. If your company has ever thought about writing an impact report or you’re incorporated in a state where it’s required by law, you need to read what we learned before you invest much of your resources without a ripple in return.
What is it again that you do?
This may seem obvious but every single company made the same mistake. For most of the impact reports, I had to go to the services page on the companies’ websites to figure out what it is they actually do. I suppose the assumption is that the viewer is already familiar with the company or why would they be looking at this publication. If I was a visitor from another galaxy, I would be pleasantly surprised to learn that on this planet, there are people who make a living by being a force for good. The language about WHAT the company does was almost always missing or so vague, it was confusing.
Some of these companies led with their mission/vision, which talked about their hopes and aspirations but not their services. In order to get anyone fully invested in your impact, it’s important to start with the basics. Please tell me what it is your company does clearly, so I can better understand the impact that stems from it. A digital dev shop or a law firm will have a much different impact than a consumer goods business.
Because all of the reports I reviewed led with their social mission, many appeared to be nonprofits. Only when I checked, did I find one nonprofit organization in the mix. So much vague language about “making a world a better place” is not only not helpful but also misleading. Interestingly, communications firms were no better at this than anyone else, sounding every bit just as vague.
Get clear about what you do, and communicate that upfront, to set up the context for the rest of the report. Your website and marketing materials likely already have good language to explain this — so use it there, but also use it in your impact report.
Who even cares? [Do you know who you’re talking to?]
It pains me to say it, but the majority of the reports I looked at were unreadable. In some extreme cases, I actually felt deeply sorry for the person who had to write the copy. But I could clearly see that the authors did not know who they were writing for, and that’s where the trouble starts.
The basic cardinal rule of communication is to know your audience and in this case, it was a rule no one followed — marketing firms included. When you use an impact report to chatter about company culture, values, challenges and accomplishments told in great detail — you’re missing the point. Were these reports written for employees and friends of the company? Many read as one big pat on the back.
Once you know who you’re writing your impact report for, you will know exactly what to include in the report itself. And if you answer the question of ‘who are you writing this report for?” with, “everyone,” then your problem lies there. Start with clearly defining your audience as narrowly as possible. I’d recommend excluding internal stakeholders from the list. If they work for you, they should already know about the company’s impact initiatives.
Why are we doing this, again?
In addition to understanding the audience, there seems to be a ton of confusion as to why companies produce this report. If your company is a Public Benefit Corporation in the USA, all states require that an impact report be published and 15 ask that it be published with the state. There are 4 states (New Jersey, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont) that have repercussions for not publishing an annual impact report. Of the reports I looked at, there were 2 that were clearly done to simply meet this requirement. They were 2 pages of bullet points typed in Word about the company’s HR initiatives. They were not written to be read or enjoyed. It’s a checkmark to meet a government requirement. No one is under the illusion that some government bureaucrat is reading these reports in a windowless office building. No one will ever read them, so why bother. Makes sense.
While reading these was no fun, I understand the rationale. I was confused by reports that clearly took time to write and design. Many B2B companies produce social impact reports as a marketing tool, which makes sense IF they were written as such. No marketing piece should have internal focus – with the theme of ‘look how great we are’. Marketing is about what you can do for me and my company. It answers the question: How can your services benefit my organization? It’s externally focused. I may have learned answers to this question if I bothered to read the additional case studies. Frankly, that’s asking too much of the reader. Who has the time (not me!)?
So, most of the companies worked really hard on these reports, and hoped to use them in their marketing efforts. Please be honest and decide that your impact report will be your marketing piece (see know your audience above), then write one for this audience with this goal in mind. No, it’s not mercenary if you have actual impact to report. I bet your flex time policy won’t make it in. But your DEI program will, and it may inspire someone to work with your firm.
Impact Report Inspo
After such a severe critique, I bet you wonder did any company get it right? I’m glad to report that the answer is yes. A few came close, and one did an excellent job. Here is what they did right:
- They created a simple 6-page piece with the highlights from the year. Short, sweet, and to the point.
- They maintained a focus on impact across cash donations, mentoring, volunteer hours, people impacted and wishes granted. They included lots of short first-person accounts of how these young adults’ lives have been changed for the better. Given that this company’s vision is for all young people who experienced foster care to have an equal chance to succeed and feel empowered, they showed their impact on their community. And the impact they had on the young people was impressive.
Because they didn’t say what they did in the report, it made me wonder if this organization was a nonprofit that works with foster youth. The visual look and feel of the report had a strong nonprofit vibe. After some investigating I actually found out they are a promotional merchandise company.
While I do wish that this organization gave me more information about their Environmental impact in their most recent report, by the time I was done perusing the site, I was totally in love with the company. They have a great purpose tightly incorporated and clearly stated — and action delivered on purpose.
Way to go, Doing Good Works! They made some of the same mistakes as the other reports by not saying what it is that they do (and saying it early on), but their impact report was certainly a cut above the rest.
This is part one of a two-part series about impact reports and how to make them more effective. Read part two.
Reprinted with permission from RoundPegComm.com