I read the article by Brendan May on Business Green and found myself agreeing despite his rather negative outlook. If nothing else we “CR people” have to maintain a positive attitude to counter the tsunami of negativity!
Having set up and run a CR initiative, along the way I’ve spoken with many others in similar positions. We all have our challenges that are particular to our organisations but there are always a couple of questions that keep cropping up. How do you make a business case that is fully supported by numbers and how do you raise money for these activities?
It is commonly known that the two hardest questions in CR and sustainability are; how do you prove a return on investment and how do you raise the finance? But I’m not sure that these are actually the hardest questions. After all, a good business man can make a good case for investment for almost anything; let’s face it we’ve been doing this for thousands of years and it really is bread and butter. So if I really, really wanted finance for a CR investment I would find someone somewhere who would back it. So what is the problem, why don’t so many CR initiatives ever get off the table?
For an answer I think we need to take a step back and look at where we are. Business leaders are experts in what they do. In SMEs they will be technical experts and in larger organisations they are management and political experts who have ridden high on the existing culture.
Then along comes CR, often hard to define and hard to initially see any value. Looks like an expensive way to achieve not very much. Unlike, for example, a proposal for a new core product where it is easy to see the value and return on investment, and the market, processes and risks are all known and well understood.
This is why I believe CR gets such a hard time getting off the ground; it is not defined clearly and is not seen as a core activity.
On top of these there are a couple of important exacerbating factors; a long term outlook is required and, because of the cultural change required to implement an effective CR initiative, excellent leadership is essential. The long term bit is easy to understand, currently most businesses look at 2-4 year paybacks on investment and even renewables at 6 or 8 years are seen as long term but many CR activities have a 10 or 20 year term, no wonder they don’t get backing.
The leadership issue is more complex. We don’t really train leaders; they develop over time. It can be hard for a leader to see how good or bad they are and this leads to uncertainty. So when something like CR comes along and demands a high level of leadership outside of the normal course of business, many are cautious of failure.
For some business leaders the whole CR agenda is seen as a criticism of how they run their business. This is something that to which CR professionals need to be aware.
In my view the solutions starts with making CR more palatable to the business. Focus on things that are close to core business and take baby steps. However it is vitally important that the senior team are educated on the importance and value of CR.
Summary of important issues;
Leadership outside of comfort zone – keep initial tasks close to existing business activities
CR not perceived as core activity, especially at the outset – focus on improving existing activities
Lack of clarity and specific goals – set SMART targets
Lack of long term outlook – manage expectations
What would I do now if I were setting up a CR initiative? Plunge the board in to an education program to get buy-in to the CR principle. Have ready a very specific goal orientated plan that will improve the existing business activities directly.