How our medium-size firm created its 1st CSR report to measure local impact beyond the bottom line
Measuring the impact an organization has on its local economy, environment, and community through a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report is no small feat. Fortunately, for Propeller consultants involved, it was an opportunity to exercise passion and creativity on a somewhat ambiguous project where no previous blueprint or structure was readily available.
“Given that we're a smaller firm, we don't have as many resources at our disposal to throw at developing a report,” says Propeller Consultant Riley Smith. “Propeller’s commitment to develop one shows that we’re committed more broadly to sustainability efforts and becoming a sustainable company.”
While CSR reports are a significant resource investment, it’s an extremely beneficial exercise that will provide an organization with better information for future decision making.
The approach to creating our first ever CSR report was to take the big problems and break them into smaller, actionable steps, including:
- Identifying who would be involved in the report’s creation
- Defining impacts (positive and negative) that would contribute to the overall output
- Aligning on intended uses
Identifying the who:
The report was created by members of existing internal initiatives, including our sustainability committee, and our Uplift committee which exists to organize and promote community service.
[The report] didn't come from the top down. It was really driven by the interest and passion of the Propeller's consultants. — Riley Smith
Defining the impacts
The team identified two primary impact areas — community and environment — that they needed to distill into usable data.
This was the first time putting together a report like this, so there are some opportunities to capture more metrics in the future. But this didn’t slow our progress in delivering an initial report and only reinforced why the work put in now will pay dividends later, providing a baseline that can be honed over time.
Making data-driven decisions for the future was a key motivation for making this report. It’s also an opportunity to tell a story that reflects who we are as a company and what we value.
The report includes data to quantify the economic impact of a growing headcount across four geographies, the environmental impact of things like local commutes, and the societal impact of volunteering and pro bono work in local communities through our Uplift initiative.
The Community Impact
Business is more than just an economic transaction. Measuring the community impact of our efforts through Uplift is a big aspect of the report.
“It’s about relationships between people whose interactions benefit one another. Community service is an extension of that concept.” — Propeller COO Jeff Foley
Propeller alumna, Stefanie Galen, started Propeller’s internal Uplift initiative in 2015 to “impact the lives of people in our community and do work that is truly important to the community in which we live.”
Beyond traditional volunteer opportunities, like building projects and serving at the local food bank, Uplift focuses primarily on skills-based volunteering. We conduct expertise work on the behalf of nonprofits that often don’t have the resources for things like professional development, strategic planning, facilitation, or mentorship.
Our focus is really about meeting our partners' needs and working with the community at large for the betterment of the community but to also give consultants the ability to learn new skills or sharpen existing ones. — Stefanie Galen
Thanks to the efforts of Galen and fellow Uplift members, we had a head start measuring our community impact, since we already had some measurements in place to track metrics such as hours.
The Environmental Impact
Measuring environmental impact, however, proved a bit more challenging, not because Propeller doesn’t embrace sustainability, but because it’s difficult to measure something where data points are not being actively tracked.
Determining Propeller’s carbon footprint was one question in particular. Propeller COO, Jeff Foley, wanted to know if the firm needed to buy carbon offsets.
“Obviously, you couldn’t really answer that question without having a baseline or guide without diving into the metrics and really understanding our impact,” said Smith. “We just started storyboarding what we thought would belong in a report. So we just said: What can we go find out there?”
“All of the data we collected existed in disparate places across Propeller,” added consultant Nate Hoffman, who also worked on the project.
The team looked to its internal systems like Harvest (a time and expense tracking software). Smith was able to find creative ways to collect data, including taking mileage and travel data from expense reports, and along with online travel calculators, convert that data into a carbon emissions metric.
Where the data was lacking, the team turned to internal employee surveys, starting with average commute times. The team was prepared for some ugly travel stats, considering a majority of our consultants commute across town to get to their clients. However, the results were overwhelmingly positive.
The number of (Propeller) people who commute without using a private car, either through carpooling, bus, walking, transit, and other means, was 44% of our transportation modes, higher than the city averages of both San Francisco and Portland. — Riley Smith
A decisive factor in Propeller’s relatively low carbon footprint is that consultants don’t fly to clients every week like the traditional Big 5 firms. Propeller is fiercely committed to its “geo-based” model of doing business in the same communities where its consultants live and play. We also believe that success doesn’t have to come at the expense of having a life outside of work.
“Being a hyperlocal consulting firm is massively important to our footprint. The fact that we consult in our cities is probably the most important business decision the firm made in terms of the environmental impact. It touches on all three (aspects of the CSR).” — Riley Smith
Aligning on the use and future goals
Armed with current data, we finally had a benchmark from which to work. This opened up discussions and questions including, "How do we continue with the education and outreach?" "How can we incentivize employees to reduce emissions?" It also naturally developed into goal setting.
This year we're focused on policy and procedure change, which will incorporate sustainability into the fabric of Propeller. — Nate Hoffman
“(When) we go to leadership and suggest something that has an impact on our environmental footprint, it helps to have a number," says Smith. "And to be able to say, ‘if we do this, it’s going to have this impact on our footprint.’"
Data collection was something the team wished was more streamlined and one area of advice the team offers to organizations wishing to take on this endeavor.
Smith adds that the goal for the future is to figure out how to make these processes more standardized in order to pull more regular and better data. "For anybody doing a report, how do you make your data more accessible, really clear and clean? Because when it's not, you have to make assumptions. When you make assumptions, you're not always telling a fully accurate story. You’re benchmarking.”
For Uplift, the 2020 goal is a larger impact on the local community, like preventing homelessness in Portland.
“While we aren't directly setting out to fix this problem, we work with our partners to help the community at large,” says Galen. “We started working with ImpactNW in March of 2016 to help them with strategic planning to help narrow their focus to what they unveiled last year which is preventing homelessness. We have worked with them on many of their campaigns, including No Place Like Home, and 30 in 30 (keeping 30 families housed in 30 days).”
Increasing involvement in local communities and opportunities to provide pro bono work is another goal. Offering events like speed mentoring, where consultants meet with a variety of nonprofits, provide win-win opportunities for consultants to try new approaches and models/tools before taking them to a client.
So what did the team learn through all this? “Don't let perfect be the enemy of good,” says Smith. “We put together something that I'm proud of that is by no means comprehensive. Starting anywhere is better than not starting at all.”
Galen says honing skills-based volunteering was a key discovery for the Uplift initiative: “The biggest thing I have learned is that while volunteering in general is great, when you can apply your skills to volunteering there tends to be higher participation, higher repeat participation, and higher overall satisfaction."
While it’s early in Propeller’s growth, a CSR will help chart progress and help the firm make decisions, and stay true to its values, throughout the many stages of growth.
“We'll probably relook at this every three to five years because as we continue to grow, our impact will grow and strategies will hopefully have an impact. Being able to start charting that progress is critical,” adds Smith.
Looking to start your own CSR and don’t know where to start? Download Propeller’s CSR report for a little inspiration and some examples of how we measure our impacts on our local economy, environment and communities. Get in touch if you would like help setting up your own CSR report.