Confront the Skeptics: Getting Buy-in to Better Reporting

If you’re on a lonely road, trying to get senior leaders to make a greater commitment to accountability for impact, but nobody’s hopping on your bandwagon, we have good news! We’re with you. In service to those of you who have the inspiration, but not the authority, to take your organization in a more purposeful and accountable direction, this post is for you.

Almost nobody outright objects to accountability being a matter of principled business conduct. If your ideas about more or better impact measurement are rejected, it’s almost sure to be a soft let-down—“that’s a great idea, but….” So here are some ready responses to the most common objections we hear to investing in reporting, measurement, evaluation, and so on. Cut and paste into your next email exchange—we promise not to tell!

“It’s a slippery slope….”

We can help drum up the support you need.

The Skeptic says, “If we have to consider the interests of pretty much everybody touched by the company, how can we know when to stop? Does the requirement to consider stakeholder interests mean we have a duty to consult with all the stakeholders we can list?”

The Audacious Response: You’re right to be concerned about upset stakeholders with unmanaged expectations. Our starting point for better accountability is with a materiality analysis: from the long list of all the possible stakeholders and issues we might consider, we can choose which issues are ‘material.’

A material issue is of high importance to stakeholders, of strategic importance to our company, and is reasonably within our scope of control to address. And if the materiality analysis process—which includes consultation with stakeholders—is done well, it should result in a set of priorities that a majority of our stakeholders agree are the right priorities. And they’ll be more engaged and supportive as a result.

This doesn’t totally avoid the possibility of a vocal minority with a niche issue making us a target for protest, but neither does inaction, and at least we’ll have a framework to engage them constructively and with some clear boundaries.

In my opinion, failing to adequately consult stakeholders and to be clear about our commitments increases our exposure to risks of reputational damage and loss of our ‘social license to operate.’ By committing to a higher standard, we can expect to be held to it, but we can also expect to be celebrated for making the commitment.

“It takes too long and costs too much….”

The Skeptic says, “Reporting is costly and time consuming––and we already meet the legal requirements with our audited financials. We can’t afford to double our costs in this area without associated revenues to balance it.”

The Audacious Response: We get it––we work here too! We’re not about to throw the organization off balance just to issue a report. Our reporting should be proportionate to our size and the complexity of our aims. That’s all.

Deploy the resources appropriate to your scale. Stakeholders will respect that.

As a small/medium/large business [Delete as applicable; this is for copy / pasting, remember!], we will only be deploying the resources that are appropriate for our size and the scope of our impact. That’s the right thing to do and as long as we use those resources well––and we will, of course!–-then our stakeholders will respect that.

And never forget, reporting does so much for us beyond proving we walk the talk: transparency is an invitation to collaborate, so we will be reaching out to new customers who will help us survive and thrive, to new investors who can help us scale, and to values-aligned suppliers who will support our growth.”

“We don’t have the data….”

The Skeptic says: “There’s no way to really measure [insert social outcome of your choice here] and we don’t have the resources to figure that out—we’re not a research team.”

The Audacious Response: The data we choose to present must be relevant to the data we use to run our business—impact report data shouldn’t be in a silo apart from our existing processes. The report will inform strategic and management decisions as much as our financials do—and we may have suitable impact data among the data we already collect.

We can set our priorities for data collection by comparing the importance of the data (for our management decisions, and for our report audience) with the feasibility of collecting it. If we think there’s certain data that would be very important but also very difficult to collect, we can consider an alternative. It will be easy to properly resource this project (i.e. not overcommit ourselves) if we consider the ‘reporting ROI.’ (All managers love the term “ROI!” Use it liberally!)

“It’s not what’s most important to our customers….”

The Skeptic says: “Our customers (or clients, or investors) are only motivated by price [or convenience, or features, or insert any other purely functional benefit here]. They don’t care if we’re sustainable or accountable as long as they get [the product / the service].”

The Audacious Response: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” (Thanks, Gretzky. Or was it Jordan?!) Accountability for impact is important to reach the customers that we don’t have yet, win back the ones we’ve lost because we aren’t doing it, and to retain the ones we have who do care, but whom we just haven’t asked! The shift towards social purpose is the biggest consumer trend we’ve ever seen, and it’s only just hitting the mainstream.

We don’t want to draw attention from our critics

The Skeptic says: “I’m not sure I want to give all our potential critics additional ammo to use against us. It’s safer, and cheaper, to respond to issues as they arise, and fly under the radar.”

The Audacious Response: You’ve been playing defense too long! That doesn’t wash with today’s consumers or even today’s investors and regulators. Everyone is looking for companies to stand for something and show it.

As marketing guru Seth Godin says, “There are only two types of companies: the brave and the dead.”

I’m for living! Are you with me?

Let’s be audacious together….


Adam Garfunkel and Garth Yule are both passionate advocates of the value to companies of measuring and reporting their progress. Reach them at [email protected] and [email protected]

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