There’s nothing like a good story to engage and excite an audience. The human story behind the numbers is what communications experts always look for as they try to transform dry facts into something that will capture the imagination of a message-overloaded public.
But in the world of corporate social responsibility (CSR), it is precisely this reliance on the simple story that is now holding back progress. CSR has tended to be dominated by stories. Polished case studies from corporate affairs departments on the one side, and half-baked horror stories from campaigners on the other.
The problem with this confrontational approach – this briefing and counter-briefing, descriptions and counter-descriptions of reality – is that we actually miss the real story: that business can have a hugely beneficial impact on international development.
The answer lies in dry facts. What’s been missing is an evidence-based dialogue. For too long CSR has been led by hearsay and anecdote. Thankfully, things are changing.
Unilever set the pace with the publication in 2005 of a groundbreaking study, done in partnership with Oxfam, about the actual impact of its Indonesian subsidiary in the country ("Exploring the Links Between International Business and Poverty Red...). The report looked at everything from the impact on employment to the impact on the wider economy. Unilever have now published the sequel – a study of their impact in South Africa, done in collaboration with INSEAD ("Measuring Unilever's Economic Footprint: The Case of South Africa").
Commenting on the INSEAD study, Gail Klintworth, Chairman of Unilever South Africa said:
"until now, although we had an opinion of our impact, we did not have the empirical evidence to understand our broader economic impact, and exactly what “making a difference” should be and the path we would need to follow to get there."
Others are following Unilever's lead, including the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, the International Business Leaders Forum, the Harvard CSR initiative and Business Action for Africa.
Finally, we can get excited: hard facts are bound to reveal more about how we can really make a difference. Time to get beyond the stories.