Ask the experts: Weighing up the social impact

Corporate social responsibility is the cornerstone of modern day business. Measuring the social and environmental impact of business activity is showcased in annual reports of organisations looking for...

Corporate social responsibility is the cornerstone of modern day business. Measuring the social and environmental impact of business activity is showcased in annual reports of organisations looking for an ethical edge.

But with seven guiding principles behind them, how do co-operatives approach measurement? Co-operative News spoke with CSR experts from some of the country’s larger co-operatives to find out.


What are the challenges in reporting and measuring? And how can they be solved?

Minnie Moll: As a co-op, we see ethical principles and supporting communities as core to everything we do. Measuring the impact of this is important but has challenges. Boosting engagement with our members is one focus. We want to make it easy for people to join us, especially younger ones. Once they are members, we want a more meaningful relationship – sharing the co-operative difference and involving them in shaping our future. Our members lead busy lives so we want to create easy ways for them to be part of their co-op – whether that’s signing an online petition or casting a vote via Facebook. Digital will be an important channel for us.

Gemma Lacey: One challenge is improving the robustness, monitoring and reporting of our community data. We want to drive greater value from our community partnerships, for mutual benefit and greater impact. We’re setting out partnership agreements with clear objectives and regular reviews, and looking to report more on the benefits and impacts of our activity. We also encourage greater participation from members, colleagues and communities. Our community strategy review includes key activities like volunteering. For colleagues, an aim will be to better align this with skills development.

Pete Westall: We need processes to measure impacts across diverse communities, and we must ensure that business benefits are measured alongside our community activity to ensure a sustainable programme. And we need sector average data to compare our impacts to, across a diverse range of communities. To solve these challenges, we have launched a regional community programme. This enables us to continue our support while identifying key issues and working to develop a stronger set of data. We are also looking to better measure the impact of our support for community-owned energy generation and our approach to responsible tax planning. Our annual social responsibility report details our improving contribution in these vital areas in more detail.

What do you measure that isn’t adopted more widely by other organisations? 

MM: We have introduced new measures for our environmental focus. For instance, in 2014 we instigated an active water management campaign with Anglian Water. This involved emailing retail sites on a monthly basis for water meter reads, then benchmarking and exception reporting. Smart water meters have been installed at our larger water-consuming sites. In recognition, we received an Anglian Water We Love What You Do Business Award for our work in protecting the environment. We also measure the return on investment for our community engagement programme. For instance, when we plan attendance at our local and county shows we now measure the cost against the potential audience reach. Our monthly community impact report measures campaigns – how many people were impacted, etc – and we present these findings to our board.

GL: We use the London Benchmarking Group’s methodology as a guide for measuring and reporting our community investment data. At the moment we focus more on the input side of things but we will be looking to better measure the benefits and impacts.

PW: Our measurements include impacts on the community and on our business. Our community activity enables us to drill down to considerable detail in selected locations, to measure impacts in the community and also measure positive impacts on our business. In 2014, we helped launch the Fair Tax Mark, which certifies businesses that pay the right amount of tax. For certification, the amount of tax we pay is assessed; it amounted to £13.6m from 2009-2013. Added to our community giving (£8.6m), our total societal payback amounted to £22.2m over those years. In 2014, we began to report on our support for community energy generation via our Co-operative Energy business. In addition to our support for renewable energy, we actively seek to source power from community generation and independent generators. By offering long-term agreements, we provide a secure market and significantly enhance a project’s viability.

Are you able to measure the co-operative difference? How?

MM: Ah, the Holy Grail. This is something we strive to do but it’s not easy. Qualitative and quantitative research helps us gain insight into brand perception. Quotes from members and indeed the feedback and thank-you letters go some way to capturing how people perceive us and value our difference.

GL: We are looking at ways to better measure the benefits and impacts of our community investment and engagement and will seek to articulate how our co-operative model enables us to execute this differently from other businesses.

PW: I think partially. We’ve got pretty good methods of measuring the lead indicators – volunteering hours, money raised or donated. This report demonstrates that for us and others. We have a long standing programme of supporting the communities in which we trade and get plenty of anecdotal feedback about the difference we have made and continue to make. We also measure many lag indicators – including the effects on colleagues of partaking in our community activities

What work does your co-op do that you’re unable to, or don’t, measure? What are the challenges in quantifying it?

MM: It’s easy to donate money, but more challenging is how to measure its impact on people’s lives. What helps is having campaign managers who work with partner organisations to measure the wider impact. In the last two years, we’ve invested £500,000 into healthcare projects which includes putting 100 defibrillators into communities. The Living Well Project in partnership with Sue Ryder; and Dementia Friendly Retail with Norfolk and Suffolk Dementia Alliance and Essex Alzheimer’s Society. For instance, our partnership with St John’s Ambulance provides accurate insight into the number of times our defibrillators have been used. Likewise, closer relations with food bank operators in 2014 meant we knew exactly how many food bank items were collected at our stores over Christmas and how many people this supported. Stronger ongoing partnerships also help drive internal change –  for instance, our partnership with Dementia Friendly Retail has introduced a programme to ensure all our 4,700 colleagues will become fully dementia-aware.

PW: With a wide range of community initiatives and impacts, it is often difficult to measure the number of non-direct beneficiaries – people who have benefited through the groups and projects we have supported. This often relies on estimation and it would be useful to have a more accurate methodology. Also, as noted above, some areas of our contribution don’t lend themselves to assimilation into methodologies such as the Community Impact Index. But it’s still important that they are measured so stakeholders can form a rounded view of our total impact. We are making great progress on tax and community energy but, even here, some of our work doesn’t lend itself to quantification, especially with lobbying. We played a key role getting better government support for community energy in 2014; and in 2015 we were the first business in the UK to back the Tax Dodging Bill.

Malcolm Brown: We operate a community grant scheme in Scotland and the north of England where local groups, charities, projects and initiatives can benefit from grants of up to £500. Ideally, we would monitor and measure its impact on perception of brand, customer loyalty, understanding of co-op values, and improving lives in our communities, but we don’t have the funds or personnel to conduct a survey.

GL: We are working to improve our systems as we are aware that there is activity across our business that is not currently being captured.

What recent achievements have made you most proud?

MM: Our Sourced Locally food range is an exemplar of everything that is fantastic about co-operation. It’s supporting local businesses through our network of 140 producers and boosting the region’s economy through payments to suppliers – £34m in 2014/15. It cuts food miles to almost zero in some cases. This year, our Producer of the Year Awards have received over 12,000 votes with over 15,000 views of the supplier films – incredible levels of engagement. And this month, we’re taking Sourced Locally to the House of Commons to spread the word, thanks to an invitation from Sir Bob Russell, MP for Colchester.

MB: We are proud that our charity partnership with Prostate Cancer UK is not just about raising money – it also resulted in staff, customers and members engaging in sometimes difficult conversations with the men in their lives, potentially saving lives. While we support a range of large-scale events, we are perhaps most proud of the funds we give to local community events, some of which simply wouldn’t happen otherwise. The society has installed defibrillators in over 40 locations across Scotland and the north of England and invested in a comprehensive training programme for over 250 staff. In October, Scotmid won the Retail Business of the Year category at the UK Heart Safe Awards.

PW: Standing out is our colleague participation in community volunteering, reaching 63% at our 2013/2014 year end, giving a total of 44,000 hours back to community groups. And our pioneering support for community energy and the Fair Tax Mark has earned plaudits.

GL: How our community contribution unlocks opportunities for community groups – particularly smaller charities and voluntary organisations – enabling them to make a positive difference.

What work is your co-op doing to be more accountable to very local membership – ie, those members who are served by their local store? And would you like to do?

MM: We’re introducing a token scheme across all stores – giving customers a say on which local initiatives they would like us to give money to. It’s a simple and effective way to engage. Each season, we’ll ask communities which of three local grass-roots charities we should support via the scheme’s £80,000 annual investment.

MB: The dedicated membership and community team work closely with store staff, regional business managers and the retail division to ensure that members know how to engage with us; and that they know they are important to us. Stores have membership and community boards to display the latest news, and we have a section on our website which is accessible only to members, where they can find out about our latest offers, society news and enter competitions. But we can’t stand still on this and are undertaking some market research among our membership to find out more about them, and how we can better develop a relationship with them. And we are very active on social media, using it as a channel for dialogue with current and potential members on all aspects of our organisation. Ideally, we want to increase member engagement and encourage greater democratic participation.

GL: This year we will carry out a review on how to develop a more strategic approach to community investment. Business in the Community is supporting this work, which will seek feedback from colleagues, community partners and members to understand the issues that matter most to them and how our business can best support our communities in addressing them.

PW: Our programme of events and activities saw 33,000 members involved in co-operative activity in the 2013/2014 financial year. We have launched our Regional Community programme to enable us to work with our members and communities at a local level to tackle local community issues. We will develop this further across our trading area in 2015/2016.

impact-index1Read more … Concern for the community: find out how co-operatives perform in the Community Impact Index:


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