Like a great recipe, there are critical ingredients that bring your impact report to life
After celebrating the holidays for six weeks, the New Year arrives with hopeful resolutions, the energy of a fresh start, and the promise of new opportunities. Oh, and it also brings that sudden realization — WHAM-O! — that you’ve been catapulted into a new year with a whole lotta work to get done.
Don’t we all know that feeling, both energizing and a little bit unsettling?
For those of us with sustainable and purposeful companies using business to intentionally create social and environmental impact, from main street retailers to software startups, this means we have an annual impact report to produce. (This assumes your business is on a calendar fiscal year.)
An impact report is your opportunity to crystallize and communicate the change you are making in the world. For companies that have become legal benefit corporations, now counting 10,000 and more across the country, it’s not just an opportunity — for most, it’s a legal requirement to produce this document — and it must be made available to the public within 120 days after your fiscal year concludes.
(For an understanding of the differences between a legal benefit corporation and a certified B Corporation, check out our article, “What Is a Benefit Corporation.”)
You may be ahead of the game and started preparing for the endeavor last year. But if you’re like many of us, or perhaps even a first timer, you pushed it off to the New Year. That means you’ll be racing to get it produced along with your myriad other business duties which just don’t go away. With this reality in mind, we’ve produced a framework to help make the most of your time by easily identifying and efficiently organizing the critical contents of an impact report.
1. Your Brand Foundation
You’ll want to begin by introducing (or reinforcing) your stakeholders to the core foundational bedrock of your company: Your purpose, values, and the change you seek to make in the world — your desired impact. (Some might recognize this framing for traditional businesses as the triad of mission, vision, values.)
By leading with these elements, you’re giving them prime real estate and signaling your stakeholders quickly and clearly that this is who we are, this is what we stand for, and this is the change we are seeking your help in making in the world.
This doesn’t have to be a long section. It benefits from brevity; economy of content gives these critical elements heft and breathing room to make an impression with the reader.
2. Products and Services
Too often, we see impact reports overlook the opportunity to educate stakeholders about the company’s products and services. After all, it’s the manufacturing, distribution, and sales of these goods and services that provide the fuel that powers your company’s impact. Research shows that people want to align with brands that are creating impact, and the clearest route to this is by purchasing your products. So, give them the opportunity; like your brand foundation, you don’t need to go overly long — product photos with concise features, benefits, and differentiating points work just fine.
3. Stakeholder Letter
This letter generally comes from the CEO, founder, or business owner. It’s an opportunity to personalize your company and your impact with direct communication to your stakeholders. As such, you should consider your stakeholder audience and make certain your letter communicates to each of them: your employees, customers, investors, your community, your suppliers, and the environment. This is an opportunity to further humanize the company by speaking frankly and transparently about specific successes, areas for improvement, and a look ahead with your goals for the future.
If you are a public benefit corporation, this could be in addition to or take the form of the legal requirement for a Benefit Directors’ Statement. Remember to refer to your state’s specific reporting regulations for benefit corporations.
4. Impact Reporting
Here’s where rubber hits the road. What are the specific and measurable social and environmental impacts that you created during the year?
Start with a concise (no one has a big attention span these days) overview that spells out the focus areas for your impact, including your goals. For instance, you might be working to positively effect gender equality, end hunger, or preserve open spaces in your community. Increasingly, we’re seeing many companies use the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 different impacts, as a handy tool for focusing and communicating impact.
Next, it’s time to provide the proof. As with your company’s financial statements, it’s all in the numbers. That’s why we recommend using an infographic approach called “By the Numbers.” Tease out the primary impacts you’re measuring for your impact, pair them with photos or graphics, and provide year-over comparisons or contrasts of data points against stated goals. This gives stakeholders a quick and clear idea of the impact your company is creating. Don’t cherry-pick just the good results; conveying shortfalls is a powerful way to communicate that you’re the real deal. In its own way, this can be the most persuasive impact you make with stakeholders: by demonstrating your honesty and earning their trust.
Pull up a chair because it’s storytelling time!
Humans identify with the narrative storytelling form, and this is what will make your stakeholders remember you. It goes beyond the numbers and allows you to convey the context and emotion of the change you’re working to make. Plus, it’s a good way to knit in other organizations that help you create a halo effect for your brand and amplify storytelling through their networks.
Pick two or three projects or impact areas. Think in terms of a 250-word limit, which allows you to paint a picture, recognize participants and partners, and move the reader. Select a couple of photos, give them ample size for visual impact, and try to include people in them, even if it’s a story about environmental impact — people respond to people. That’s another way of employing pattern recognition.
Remember — while the numbers validate your impact, it’s the story of your impact that’s memorable. Here are some story ideas to get your creativity flowing:
- An internal team working to create or update your DEI statement.
- Volunteers sweating the environment by planting trees to fight climate change.
- Products or services specifically designed to solve social and environmental problems used in application.
- Collective action with other companies on behalf of a cause or a longstanding collaborative partnership with nonprofits and city government to address a community issue.
Independent certifications give your products, services, and company credibility in the eyes of the marketplace. You’ve invested mightily in securing them, so be sure to include them in your impact report. Whether that’s Fair Trade, the Rainforest Alliance, 1% for the Planet, LEED building standards, or B Corporation, be sure to place these logos in your report. You can briefly describe them here or link to their home pages for readers to learn more.
If you’re a legal Benefit Corporation, remember that you need to include the third-party standard that is used to assess your impact and public benefit.
Did your company receive news coverage during the year? Did you have amazing product reviews or testimonials from customers, suppliers, employees, community stakeholders? Did employees achieve special recognition? Then sing it! This could be contained within its own section or used as pull-quotes or presented as graphic highlights throughout the report.
Lastly, don’t let your engagement with the reader stop here. Use your impact report as a tool to continue engaging stakeholders all year round. Invite them to sign up for your email newsletter. Give them quick access to connect and follow along on your social media. Provide them with relevant links to your website, to product demos, videos, blogs – you get the idea.
And remember, like a good cook looking to stretch ingredients, you can and should make the fantastic content you’ve created go further than the impact report. The graphics, the numbers, the stories – they can all be repurposed and repackaged for distribution across your communications channels. Be thinking about this as you’re designing your impact report so you can create once and multiply its usage and impact by slicing and dicing it for your newsletter, a blog, a LinkedIn post, or an article on Medium. What’s not to love about magnifying your impact while at the same time making your job just a little bit easier? For people who are under-resourced and overburdened with work responsibilities, that’s a feat of marketing magic, isn’t it?
An Endnote for Benefit Corporations
The nonprofit B Lab provides a guide with specific reporting requirements for Benefit Corporations (known as Public Benefit Corporations in some states).