Startups navigate next wave of corporate social responsibility

Jack Temple | Flickr via Creative Commons

Boulder’s Unreasonable Institute is using “militant transparency” as a new twist on an old marketing concept: the corporate social responsibility report.

It can be scary putting your company’s activities and culture on the line, but it’s a growth opportunity. Your network appreciates the honesty. Publishing a report indicates a commitment to do better and gives your customers and employees a venue for telling you how you can improve.

Recently, the Unreasonable Institute recognized its carefully crafted crowdfunding system for selecting their summer fellows for its global environmental and social impact startup accelerator program had a crucial flaw.

Despite efforts to level the monetary playing field for entrepreneurs with less wealthy networks, female founders were consistently squeezed out. So the Institute embraced its philosophy of “militant transparency” and shared the concern with its email network to solicit solutions to the problem.

Readers sympathetic to the Institute’s mission offered constructive suggestions for next year’s funding model. It’s also a great strategy that could chart a whole new course for authentic corporate responsibility and customer engagement for startups and mega-corporations alike.

For years, companies have used CSR—or its modern day cousin corporate sustainability—as a way to tout their community street cred and differentiate themselves from the greedy barons of industry of yore.

Sustainability and corporate social responsibility might seem like abstract concepts outside the realm of business for a startup. However, practicing corporate social responsibility provides an excellent opportunity for even small companies to demonstrate transparency, share core values and illustrate the company’s impact to stakeholders.

It’s not just the organic health food companies always imploring you to recycle your cereal box that are jumping in on CSR reporting, it’s the big dogs too.

In 2010, over half of the Fortune 100 produced CSR reports and more are anticipated for 2011 as governments and stock exchanges continue to push to make reporting mandatory. Some companies, such as DuPont and AT&T, have even promoted sustainability to the C-Suite, naming Chief Sustainability Officers and integrating sustainability into core businesses strategy.

For the lean startup reusing its coffee filters and printing on the back side of the scrap paper more out of budget necessity than eco-consciousness, there’s help to get started on your first CSR report.

Dale Heart, a partner at the marketing and corporate social responsibility communications firm Methodologie, offers simple advice in his Environmental Leader.com post, “First Steps to Creating a Corporate Sustainability Report.”

First, Heart advises companies to start small. Take a look at where your company makes the largest impact, be it good or bad, and evaluate that. Developing a method to assess a specific aspect of the business will lay the groundwork for looking at other impacts later on, when a more comprehensive report makes sense. From there, consider your audience, what you want them to know, and how to reach them.

For data gathering, look to resources like the Global Reporting Initiative framework—considered the gold standard in sustainability reporting—and find the metrics they use that apply to your business.

In Colorado, may we suggest accounting for the miles employees biked to work, or perhaps more appropriately, the number of microbrew bottles recycled?

Benchmark your efforts with competitors and industry sustainability leaders, implementing the assessments they use that best apply to your company. Don’t start sweating over solar panels yet; this data need not cover just carbon emissions or energy consumption.

Your business may affect the community with impacts like job creation, supporting local businesses, undertaking educational initiatives, or providing infrastructure.

Heck, we’ll even give you permission to count supplying the wifi the neighbors steal as infrastructure.

But who is supposed to do all of this work?

Heart emphasizes the importance of building a team within the business dedicated to CSR.

While most small businesses cannot commit resources specifically to CSR, a passionate team with executive leadership participation can gather the necessary data, build a report and encourage a culture of sustainability throughout the business.

Look around the room. Who brought an aluminum water bottle to work? There’s your team.

Finally, it’s time to publish.

Most companies share their CSR report either as a PDF or separate section on their website.

Don’t forget this is an opportunity to not only show off your company’s transparency, but to spur conversation among your employees, investors, and customers. Flaunt your company’s personality in the report’s graphic design and voice. Distribute your report via your social media channels, blog, email newsletter, and annual report.

After you’ve published, encourage feedback.

Assembling your company’s first CSR report might seem daunting, but the work is front-loaded and like anything else in a startup, the key is iteration.

Execute first, and each subsequent report will provide goals to reach, metrics to report against, ideas for the next report’s supplements, and foster a culture of sustainability among stakeholders.

So go ahead, conduct business like a Fortune 100, and add CSR reporting to your startup ninja skills.