For most sustainability practitioners producing the annual sustainability report is a labour of pain rather than a labour of love. It is a hectic and complex task of juggling several balls in the air while begging a long list of team members for data and information. In addition to the materiality process, data collection and data analysis, producing a sustainability report is a deep dive research process to validate the numbers and uncover the company’s sustainability stories. The creative part of the process includes skillfully writing those stories and designing the overall layout, which are wide open to criticisms.
And in the end, are many people going to read your report? Probably not other than a few board members, some government reps, and some NGOs. And perhaps, those keen individuals who completed your stakeholder survey and would like to see the fruits of their petite yet critical contributions of labour. These people are valued stakeholders who have taken time and energy to share their opinion. So then, let’s start talking about these key stakeholders.
Stakeholder engagement is one of the first steps in preparing for your annual sustainability reporting season. The purpose of which is to scan your key interest groups for what they want to learn about your company. Engagement practices include anonymous online surveys (most popular), focus groups and one-on-one interviews conducted by an insider or a third-party. I thought I would share some of my ideas and techniques for uncovering information during this process, they are below.
Survey your stakeholders with earnest. Ask people what they most want to learn about your company and why. Be prepared to fulfill those requests and if you can’t at this time then provide a reason. I have found that open ended questions lead to more questions lead to unique findings.
Online surveys with the goal to reach a maximum number of stakeholders are perfect and efficient for high level scans. Then drill down. Spend time talking with even a few key stakeholders for valuable perspectives: What do they like or don’t like about your company? What do they understand or isn’t clear about your company? Do they have any ‘Why’ questions for you?
Stakeholders fall into very specific buckets that are labelled with associated interests (investor, shareholder, government, supplier, customer, community, special interest group…). So we never think to ask: "Why do you care about our company and what we do?" I actually have never asked this question (I literally just thought of it while writing this piece) and realize that I have assumed each stakeholder is burdened by the label they carry. It intrigues me to find out what I may have missed in the past, if anything.
Craft the questions of your stakeholder engagement to understand their interests and concerns, rather than what they want to read about in the report. This may sound like two ways of saying the same thing. By approaching engagement from a perspective of strategy (i.e. Consider what information would help strengthen and focus my sustainability strategy.) you are likely to get answers framed for tangible use in strategy development (year-round, no less!) while knowing what is really important to your stakeholders and thereby should be communicated in your annual sustainability report.
Touch base with your stakeholders more than once a year. Beyond the annual stakeholder survey, check in with key stakeholders formally and informally midway through the year. Or as a thank you for participating or simply reading your report, incorporate an online survey into the published report to get immediate feedback. It is big commitment to read a 100+ page report or scroll and click through a comprehensive and complex online report. Reward your readership with a ‘We see you and now want to hear you’ offering. A few simple questions such as ‘What were you looking for in reading our report? Did you find it?’ and ‘What did you like and not like?’
The bottom line is that everyone wants to be heard and know that they have been listened to. If you are asking for their time and their opinion, validate your stakeholders by approaching stakeholder engagement with the intention for truly focusing your sustainability strategy.